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In college, my friend Monica looked after my pets one weekend when I was away. I returned to my dorm room to find a note on the door.
“Sorry about the fish, ” she wrote. “Do all fish die when you take them out to cuddle? ”
It was quintessential Monica. She was sweetly goofy, the nurturer of our social set — if you had a broken heart or a bruised ego, you went to Monica’s room. So naturally if you needed pet care (such as it was in the college dorms), you called on Monica.
My fish survived that weekend, of course, and lived a few months longer. I can’t say I remember their passing, but I know they traveled via toilet bowl to that great aquarium in the sky while under my watch.
That I don’t remember every detail of their deaths is surprising, in a way; I am a sickly sentimental type who clings to sorrows past. I know I was fond of them, and maybe loved them; after all, I had named them both (Rasputin and Clod) — which is sort of against the rules for an amateur aquarist, who should anticipate failure at the hobby. In other words, sudden death may occur.
After the passing of Rasputin and Clod, or maybe around the same time, there was a rather unfortunate experience with a few tadpoles who sprouted tiny legs and dehydrated, I think, by getting themselves stuck on a rock in an elaborate set-up I had made for them. It was the summer of my discontent — or maybe the summer of 1988 — and it was enough to make me swear off gills for years.
It was the same summer that I spent five hours by car away from my best friend, not coincidentally the woman with whom I had recently shared my first lesbian kiss. We were, after our experiment, “just friends, ” but I was in love with her and that was no secret. The distance between Burlington, Iowa, and Kansas City couldn’t have been greater, as far as I was concerned. The loss of my little tadpoles and my two fish was an apt marker of my prevailing sense of despair.
The next time hints of aquatic life came into my world was in 1994, when I was breaking up with my first girlfriend. She was further along in the breaking up process than I was; she had physically moved herself and her things into a separate bedroom and was kindly waiting for me to catch up. I was young and foolish, clinging to every speck of hope I could find, until one day I finally started imagining what my life After Sue might be like.
“When I get my own place, ” I told her one night after a trip to the grocery store, “I’m going to get a fish tank. ”
She hugged me, and maybe cried a little; she knew she was about to be free of the baggage of our three tumultuous years together. That Christmas, she gave me a 10-gallon aquarium. We had broken up 11 days earlier.
Ironically, I carried that tank with me to three residences over the next three years before I ever set it up. I waited until I bought a house with my partner — who was a fan of that particular symbol of my liberation — and I knew I wouldn’t be moving again anytime soon.
My first five fish were these hearty little tetras recommended for beginners. Within four months, I’d killed them. The art of fishkeeping, it turns out, has much to do with chemistry, and I am like Talking Barbie when it comes to math and science. Math is hard! Science is confusing! Why is the water in my pH test tube green instead of blue? Help me, Ken!
When you buy a school of fish, it’s trickier to give them all names, but I christened all of mine “Lyn Junior, ” a tribute to my best friend (this one I did not kiss) who attended her mother’s funeral on the day of my fish purchase. This made it somewhat harder when they died — by then they had been joined by two plecos, commonly known as suckerfish, named Juan and Soledad and a few platys named Colleen Junior (they were hard to tell apart, too, and were named in honor of my then-boss, who had just taken a new job and cleared the way for me to climb the ladder).
The wipe-out of that community was devastating to me. It was documentation of my failure, and I felt helpless as they died, one by one, all except Juan. I know I am an able caretaker for my mammalian pets — proof is my Siamese cat Eleanor, who turns 14 next month — but the scaly creatures are trickier for me. Maybe it’s because I can’t take them out to cuddle.
Through that disaster, I became a more serious vegetarian; I had been a quasi-veggie for a few years, apologetically confessing my avid seafood consumption when queried. But with the death of all the Lyn Juniors and the Colleen Juniors and Soledad, I wasn’t hungry anymore.
Juan toughed it out in my tanks until last year, and he’s buried now by our azalea bushes. He could have lived longer, just like his buddy Spot, a goldfish from our backyard pond who came in at the end of a summer because we’d become fond of him and weren’t sure he’d make it through winter. Spot had a good long life, too, but I can’t help noticing that these types of fish can live 15 years in the right conditions, given enough space.
I am a more attentive fishkeeper these days, doing water changes mostly on schedule and monitoring ammonia levels and the like, and for the most part my existing tank, which I’m still building, seems happy and healthy.
This weekend, though, I added two swordtails who suddenly are showing signs of disease — I’m guessing I made a bad purchase — and so I have quarantined them in a hospital tank and am medicating them and hoping for the best. I’m trying to remain unattached, but my heart is inclined to wrap around these little creatures I’ve taken into my care.
Is it all one big break-up metaphor? Is each fish death a reminder of the demise of my first relationship, the forced independence that makes a codependent lesbian stereotype like me anxious? Or is it a simple fact that I am, in this one wacky way, too much of a Barbie to be entrusted with an aquarium?
All self-doubt aside, I have to consider that the fish who don’t survive in my tanks are a vastly smaller number than the quantity I would have consumed in tuna salad sandwiches by now.
Kristina Campbell owns fishnets, but not the kind that might titillate her gay brethren. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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