I was working on a short story about a woman who decides to buy two betta fish and calls them Edgar and Nathaniel—the woman, like me, teaches Early American Literature at a college—when I remembered the first pet I truly called my own: Bubbles, a puke-orange goldfish I won at a carnival by plunking a ping pong ball in his bowl. I got to take home the bowl and everything. The glass was foggy, like a cup run through a dishwasher on its last legs, struggling to remove even the flakiest of stuck food. I smashed the bowl between my legs on the drive home, staring down at the fish, water splashing my thighs as my father took tight turns too fast. The fish bobbed and wiggled. He must have thought he was on a roller coaster to hell. But I was seven, and of course I didn’t think much about hell.
Bubbles was dead the next day, his eyes wide and black like plump fleas, mouth unhinged. He had turned a sickly white, the color of a soiled bedsheet in need of bleach. I sobbed. My mother comforted me in the way I now recognize mothers do for young children in these situations: posing as empathetic, with enough authenticity to trick me—well-intentioned trickery, but trickery nonetheless—into thinking she understood I was suffering, even though she knew, as all parents do, that this suffering was fleeting.
When I remember Bubbles, I don’t experience the deep pangs of sorrow I know I felt then. That hurt was true, and harsh, and cutting: it was my first encounter with death, but it was vivid and cold, like the slap of a gust of winter wind. It made me feel that elemental rawness and exposure.
A year later, my family was preparing for a move, rural New York to suburban Missouri, when my grandfather died unexpectedly. My memory of that loss is vague, trapped in a labyrinth of packing and cardboard boxes. I was confused, I think, and annoyed by the timing. I’ve never been able to really reconcile that experience: a human death—the first with any closeness to me—a blur, foggy like Bubbles’ bowl, but the fish’s death clear and crystal and not at all chewy and uncertain.
When we moved to Missouri, I asked if we could get a fish tank. My parents obliged, and we filled the thing with tetras and swordtails and angelfish. Those pets are long dead, their names cloudy and gone, and I have no memory of their passing.
I teach composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri, where I edit The Gateway Review, a literary journal of magic realism.