Please, somebody, take these fish.
They are five very cute black-and-white, pot-bellied mollies, each one smaller than the last. They have their own tank, with a tiny castle and a smooth piece of driftwood so inoffensive that it accumulates a thin fuzzy layer of algae in the blink of an eye.
They are hardy little things. And, other than water changes and the daily pinch of tropical flake from Wal-Mart, they demand nothing of me. Yet, every time I look at their eager swims to the top of the tank for their nightly feeding, I think, as I sprinkle them with sustenance:
Man, I’ve got to do something about these fish.
Where this likely comes from is that I didn’t choose these fish. They happened to me. I had a former roommate who just kept bringing home animals—first, it was a frog, then a dog—then scaled back to fish, fish, and more fish—a hobby she took up to overcome smoking.
When she moved out in a flurry overnight, with a new beau I never caught more than the first name of—she was attentive enough to collect all her packs of cigarettes from the porch but left the tank in my living room. She swore she would be back to collect once she had properly moved in and knew where to put them.
That was a year ago. And she won’t return my calls or answer my texts.
I’m starting to suspect she isn’t coming back for the fish.
Granted, it’s not like I don’t have time for the fish. I have, as of last year, suddenly found myself sitting on my porch with a wine in hand as the evening turns into night with a disconcerting amount of time to my thoughts. As a writer, and now a screenwriting professor, I can hear myself responding in my head to this scenario if a colleague had this problem instead of myself. I would have chirpily responded to someone else with this problem: “Looks like what you have is MORE time to write! Hooray for you!”
God, I am such an asshole sometimes.
I do have a lot of time to write. But, it’s like going to a buffet with the stomach flu. You could pile some macaroni and cheese on the plate. Smile to the table, “Mmm, this looks delicious.” But you know none of it is going inside you. Ever.
Because you are going through something. Parts of you just aren’t working, even if you cram the Mac and Cheese in, it would be regurgitated out in seconds to the horror of everyone at the establishment.
I can hear the voice inside me again thinking, “Oh, is that all that is? You’re going through something? Well– why don’t you write about it?!”
Oh, Gee– this old adage of writing what you know? Really, ugly chirpy fuck face?
Because, yes, there is merit to writing what you know—but when you’re in the middle of something, you absolutely do not know it. It isn’t over yet. So, in general, I avoid talking about what’s currently going on in my life until I know if I’ll be the villain, the hero, or the fool.
Probably all of the above.
This is why I often write about my childhood as a barefoot desert kid from an Arizona red brick suburb, because—all of the events from those hot summer, cicada-buzzing evenings are decades past. I can dredge through the physical and the emotional truths with ease and without blowback. I can confidently write that most eyewitnesses to my young kid hijinks are severely disinterested. I’m especially grateful my Kindergarten teacher was quite old and likely has shuffled off her mortal coil or is so deep into her retirement, she isn’t thinking of that kid in the nineties she couldn’t make learn her left from right.
That was my parent-teacher conference in Kindergarten.
Mid-80s, my mother in her work dress of polyester and shoulder pads—doing the mental load of our family as my father kicked back in his corduroy recliner back at the house. The problem: my left and right directional skills were abysmal. I wouldn’t pick a consistent writing hand. Also, I had talked all of my group mates into putting plastic bags over our heads while playing house (it was because we were being mind controlled by aliens—duh).
To describe my contributions to the class in terms of fishtanks, I was not the smooth piece of driftwood.
At one point in the conference, both of their eyes rested on me—the party who had to remain quiet in a chair as my laundry list of failings was presented and tent my fingers like a thoughtful CEO hearing the quarterlies. I had recently mastered the art of looking like I was listening, as well as repentant. I was actually thinking, like all of the students had been all week, how the lunch lady had somehow hatched a duckling, which imprinted on her, and had been following her all around campus. All I cared about was if I was first in line for lunch the next day if I might glimpse the duckling before word made it to the administration and someone put a stop to its waddles about the school.
“So you need to choose,” my mother told me.
“Hrmm.” I nodded, wondering if the duckling had been named yet. And if Ducky from The Land Before Time was too on the nose.
Which hand was the hand I would have to choose, intentionally, to be my dominant writing hand. I would have to commit to using just that hand to begin learning to write in class. I immediately created a list of everyone I knew who was right-handed, and everyone I knew who was left-handed, and evaluated which group I wanted to be associated with. My mother and my sister were right-handed. The left-handed people I knew were just associates.
My mother sat expectantly at the tiny table in my kindergarten room. How could I reject her hand choice when she brought me into this world and supplied me with all the hot dogs our brand-new microwave could handle? I chose to be right-handed alongside her.
I often reconsider this choice, like my own personal Matrix Red Pill/Blue Pill—wondering who left-handed Kay may have wound up being. Left-handed dominant folks are said to have more developed right brain functions—emotions, creativity, and musical ability. Would I have changed into someone who could actually carry a tune? Or would I have simply lost my ability to memorize all the terms I needed for my Anatomy and Physiology class?
When I am stuck on a particular beat of a story, a little voice in me wonders—would Left-Hand Me have figured this out already?
But at the end of the day, I chose my right hand. So, I can sleep soundly at night knowing—even if the reasoning was somewhat basic—that I oriented myself to a prong at the fork in the road of who I would become and proceeded down the path.
I didn’t choose the fish.
I didn’t choose Maggie.
My roommate had more than animals and a carousel of attention on dating apps. She had Maggie. You see, my roommate and her boyfriend got pregnant. They separated, but Maggie was born. A bald wrinkled baby who spent the first six months of her life looking wide-eyed at everything like she was constantly tripping on mushrooms. As her postpartum and difficulty bonding with Maggie reared its ugly head—my family stepped in—bathed her, fed her, changed her, and put her to bed.
We were her wrap-around family, Maggie’s extra roots of stability.
Maggie was right-handed and never had to pick. She never doubted herself in any way. When she learned to walk, she skipped over the plodding wobbly steps and went straight to running. She befriended our semi-feral backyard cat that plopped in her lap and purred when the rest of us were just treat dispensers to be quickly dismissed. At night Maggie demanded to fall asleep in the bed next to my partner, and we had to wait till she was deep in sleep to move her to her bed. Sometimes we passed out before she did and she stayed the whole night kicking us and yelling in her sleep. Her favorite color might be blue. Wait, no! Pink. She stashed candy in her play kitchen for later: unwrapped lollipops, pre-chewed gum, half cookies … By the age of six, Maggie had a collection of Disney princess dress-up shoes and would clop down the tile hallway in her selected pair of the day.
CLACK! CLACK! CLACK!
Maggie loved animals. Her favorite animal, the cheetah. However, she also loved the German Shepard her mom got her who was obsessed with tennis balls before he was rehomed. And the frog her uncle caught for her died within a week. Maggie witnessed the death of so many fish. Guppies, betta fish, plecos, ghost shrimp, Bala sharks—but the aquarium at the store was always happy to plop another in a bag with water and air and let her mother try again.
Before my roommate moved out—she got a pregnant, pot-bellied molly for Maggie, so they could raise the baby fish together.
Six years old is an interesting age. My memories of life at six are the stuff of my writing: My wonder, my incongruence with society, my processing of my family’s dissolution. My eyes took in a lot, and now, I’m on my way to old ladyhood, still processing that information and who I was then vs. now.
The distance gives me space to forgive myself and the other players in these memories. To examine them almost scientifically, without the emotion of when I was in that moment. But I also know I’m an outlier. Just as I was the odd-duck kid, having to pick a dominant hand, I know that my memories of such a young age aren’t typical.
Trust me, I’ve been researching. And what I’ve learned is: by age seven, children’s early memories usually begin to fade.
In November, Maggie will be gone a full year from my house.
She will be seven and a half.
I will have no choice if she forgets me or not.
But even if I had a choice to have her remember or have her forget, I don’t know which I would choose. Some days I want her to remember everything—every sticker I caught her putting on the wall and every clementine I peeled for her while we watched Howl’s Moving Castle. And in the next, I want it all to just be a pleasant feeling dissipating dream so the sinkhole of loss doesn’t grow inside her heart like it is in mine.
So, here I am with these fish. These fucking fish I raised from specks of midnight black. These un-cumbersome goobers without any object permanence, no awareness of who I am, or that I am their god of light and dark. Tomorrow, if someone else sprinkles in their flake, their world will continue, just as is.
I didn’t ask for these fish– I don’t even like fish that much.
But as much as I’ve wanted to get rid of these fish, I can never manage a post on Offer-Up or Craiglist. What if I give them to someone who forgets to feed them—who doesn’t care that the tap water is toxic to their scales? Who hates that little castle and driftwood and puts in a skeleton with a treasure chest instead?
How on earth could I give up these fish?
*Feature image by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)