On Owning a Fish Tank – Part 2
This post is part two of a two-part series continued from last week.
When we get to the back section of the pet store, there is a wall of aquariums – it’s like the nerdy adult-version of going to the Jelly Belly headquarters. I put my nose against the glass, palms flattened out next to my face, so I could feel like I was in one of the aquariums with the fish. Keith tells me I’m stupid for doing that.
After hours of argument, we choose our first six fish (To start the tank out, we adopted orange and yellow Wags – Kayla, the dreamy fish-saleswoman, told us they were a stalwart breed) and nestle them in plastic bags carefully between other bags and sacks in the back seat. They tell us the fish only have a bag life of three hours – it’s a two and a half hour drive back home. We have no time to waste, we’re now responsible for the lives of other living beings.
Driving home, Keith and I talk about naming them, but decide not to – for fear that naming the fish might incite some curse that would lead to their imminent death. Keith says we should just call them, “Our children” – I tell Keith he’s stupid for saying that.
When we turn south at Murdo, South Dakota to make the last hour of the drive, we pass an abandoned house we’ve always wanted to explore. It sits out there along the horizon-line with thin, bare trees outside, surrounded by old farm equipment grazing on the prairie.
We forget about the fish.
We’re discussing the pros and cons of climbing onto the roof of Boo Radley’s when we realize the children are still in the car.
We drive like the wind to make it home, but unfortunately – we lose two.
Oh, the humanity.
We race through the front door and Keith tells me, normally, you’re supposed to set the bags into the water to let the water temperature in the bag acclimate to the water temperature of the tank, but, “There’s no time for that now” he commands – like we’re about to operate on my mother and can’t wait for the anesthesia. So we dump the gold and yellow fish into the vastness of the 65 gallon tank, speaking encouraging words to them about the temperature of the water as they tumble in slow motion to the bottom.
Owning a fish tank is about trial and error. You feel like god for a while because these lives come in and out of your house. Soon, there’s a graveyard next to our front steps.
The cats like that.
We don’t really know what kind of culture we established in our fish tank – one of unity, toleration and peace, we hope. But we couldn’t be sure. One morning at the breakfast table, I ask Keith what he thinks the inside of our fish tank would sound like if we understood aquatic languages. He pauses and then screams like he has his hand in a blender.
That’s probably pretty accurate.
Soon after, a frog commits suicide by exercising too much curiosity with the pumps coming from R2-D2. Then, a sucker fish sucks his way up to the lip of the tank and over onto the floor – I suppose viewing the world outside was just too much for him. Keith then buys a crab with only one claw – I think the school of striped barbs (who may or may not have were bullied at the pet store) ganged up on him.
The poor crustacean disappeared.
Like an Alka-Seltzer.
That’s the annoying thing about a fish tank, sometimes you’ll look in there and see nothing but little strings of fish poop in the gravel. Then, you’ll look at something else and when you look back – there are fish you’ve never even seen before. Just hanging out by the Anacharis plant.
Slowly, the tank becomes this focal point in our house. It lights up the room and the sound of flowing water is always present. Some nights, all I can do to relax is look into the fish tank. And on particularly hard days, I make a boat drink and prop a chair right in front of it like I’m watching television.
They flitter about and catch light from across the room. I think of being younger and wandering around my grandmother’s house – sometimes I’d peek deep into the drawer where her broaches were guarded. There they were, crowded together and fighting to keep a color for themselves. Not unlike that, these fish buoy through this stationary substrate we created – knowing what it feels like to be a part of one whole thing, yet a different and independent thing as well.
It was when we knew we were moving from South Dakota that the fish tank became most valuable. I realized the fish were going to have to find another body of water.
So was I.
All of the sudden, the same space felt different. The same mechanism of movement also became a thing that trapped me. That directed me toward a place I’d already been.
I started taking long walks on May nights when it was still cold – the stars would swim up against the edge of the night, not unlike my fish. There, at the edge of this next thing, were the moving bodies contained way out there in the black – but somehow, still free.
Wonder comes back to us when we don’t expect it to.
So does the permanence of things.
And their tendency to be fleeting as well.
I co-owned a fish tank for a year, with fish in it. We were just two guys from Texas with some tropical fish – doing our best to traverse snow drifts and decipher Midwestern accents. It was like we needed this population of strangers to help us feel home.
And they did.
Each night, as we’d move toward sleep, the fish would let the light take the color from their scales and slosh it up against a moon-dusted wall.
In the morning – if we did everything right – they’d still be moving.
And so would we.