When I was seven years old, I made my First Holy Communion, a rite of passage for young Catholics that involved wearing a frilly white dress and having a Priest put a cracker in your mouth. This cracker symbolized the body of Jesus, who died for my sins, I was told, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
On the morning I was to take my first bite of God, I woke up to find that while I slept someone had come into my bedroom and set up a fish tank on my dresser. It glowed with its intense fluorescent blue-tinged light, complete with rocks, water, a bubbling filter and a handful of fresh water fish. When I was a child, I could sleep through anything.
The fish tank, like the cracker, were a symbol of transformation. I was no longer just another schmuck in a house full of pets. In coming closer to Jesus, I was coming closer to being regarded as someone capable of handling responsibility. I was a pet owner. These fish were mine.
The problem with pet fish is that they aren’t the most interactive of species. Rosie, the parrot that lives in the corner of my parents house next to the pool table, often wakes the household lazybones in the late morning with a rousing chorus of shrill, intensely loud screams. Max, the 130 pound Great Pyranese dog, still thinks he’s a puppy and will saunter up to you while you sit on the sofa, and plop his giant ass down on your lap as he envelops you in a cloud of stray white hairs. My cat Harold will drag the covers off my body if he thinks I’m neglecting him in the morning, which I often am. “I’m sleeping, damn it. Go bother someone else.” This tactic is often ineffective.
I kept the fish in the bedroom tank for many years, fish coming and going. Once a beta fish, added because I thought he looked lonely in his softball-sized solo bowl, managed to eat an entire forest of guppies. A swarm of hundreds was reduced to six in a matter of days. I was horrified, but by then, there was nothing to be done except flush the beta and re-stock on guppies.
Pet fish taught people resiliency.
They also gave me my first taste of insanity, that is. Of suicide.
It was a brown, hideous “sucker fish,” universally known as such even though I’m sure they have an actual name, who was the first creature to try to end its life in front of me. One morning, groggy with sleep, I dragged myself out of bed to take a shower and get ready to go to school. I shuffled across the blue nylon carpet and my foot stopped itself. Something cold and squishy was about to be crushed, and I screamed.
My father rushed in, convinced I was either being kidnapped, mauled or otherwise done wrong, to find me staring at a four-inch, still-breathing sucker fish, splayed on the carpet.
“I have no idea how the fish got out of the tank,” I said.
Laughing in that way dads do when they find out their children aren’t actually being stolen by the gypsies, he picked it up and, opening the tank’s lid, tossed it back in the water.
We started at it for a second and then. Splash!
In the three-inch gap at the back of the lid, open to let air in, the fish had found his escape route and had jumped back out of the tank. We put it back, only to have it leap out again. This fish was determined to cease being.
So, we flushed him, still alive, hoping that in the bowels of our septic system, he’d get what he wanted.
Meanwhile, the fish downstairs lived in a 70-gallon salt-water tank that my father lovingly maintained, in a place of honor in the house: right beneath the television.
Trying to be a semi-popular, fully-relevant member of elementary school society in the 80s meant logging several hours of after-school cartoon time on a daily basis. The roster of He-Man and She Ra, the Thunder Cats and G.I. Joe. Transformers. Saturday morning Smurfs viewing. If you couldn’t name all the characters in Rainbow Brite, you were basically a heathen (or in the case of one unfortunate girl named Trisha, a Jehovah’s Witness and not allowed to sing in the Christmas pageant, Trick-or-Treat or dye Easter eggs. She was an automatic outcast even though as a white blond girl, she should have had automatic status.)
In our house, the prized spot was directly in front of the television, laying on a giant pillow on a blanket spread out like a beach towel, with your feet propped against the fish tank. It was the drivers’ seat of the television. You had staked your claim to watching “Little House on the Prairie,” and no one could do a damned thing about it until you either got hungry or could no longer hold it in, and you got up to pee.
We’d watch entire miniseries, legs crossed and writhing in pain, to not get up and lose our seats. There were four of us. Occupying a prime space involved intense calculation of tactics, careful negotiation. “If I run and get the pillows, and you slide onto the floor, we can meet back up and lay in front of the TV together, and then Jessica and Jackie will have to sit on the sofas…” we would plot. Siblings teach strategic thinking.
If they were around to tell us, my parents would demand we remove our feet from the fish tank, but it only happened for as long as it took them to leave the room again. If they watched something with you, you slowly inched them back up until they were resting on top of the tank, at which point they’d make you take them down. And the cycle continued.
The entertainment center was custom-built to hold the fish tank, but the design forgot to take into account tank maintenance and the fact that, since it wasn’t the ocean, food would have to be introduced to the tank in order to keep the fish alive.
We had a problem of access. The opening in which the tank sat was only a few inches taller than the tank, and my father was the MacGyver of fish tank masters. When fish died and fell to the bottom of the tank, he would break out his spear – a wooden dowel with a nail attached to one end with electrical tape. We would then watch him try to maneuver to stab the carcass with the nail and pull it out slowly so that he didn’t drop it. “God damnit!” He dropped them a lot.
To change the water, he’d invented a hose and pump system that would empty a few gallons of water out of the tank so that he could mix a clean batch and then pump it back in. We used magnetic pads, one on the inside, one holding onto it from the outside, to clean the algae off of the glass. When those unfailingly fell, a combination of the spear and persistence were the only ways to get the magnet back to the glass, where you’d get it to re-adhere to the other one, only to drop it again. The opening was so narrow at the top that not even Jessica, with her miniature 6-year-old arms, could reach in.
When I was in college and we moved, the tank stayed behind, and I don’t think anyone was sorry to see it go. You can only take so many years of spearing clown fish with a nail before you start to wonder why people bother keeping pet fish. If you wanted to see them that badly you could go to any Chinese restaurant, and with that you’d get the added benefit of beef with broccoli and fortune cookies.
My last fish tank was a 120-gallon impulse buy. My friend was slowly dying of cancer, and rather than deal with it, I was engaging in retail therapy of the highest order. The day before, I’d bought an oversized armchair at a Jennifer Convertibles warehouse store, and they did not deliver.
I had to rent a U-Haul van to pick up the chair, which I had arranged to do during my lunch break. I had also spent part of the morning browsing Craigslist, and came across the fish tank. 120 gallons, complete with a 6-foot long, 3-foot high wooden base with cabinets for supplies. It was $100. I was sold.
In addition to retail therapy, I’d also taken to trying to take care of things, like vagrant computer programmers and tomato plants, during that year. Remembering the intricate work involved in maintaining the salt water tank of my childhood, I thought I’d found the perfect hobby, but it wasn’t meant to be.
My friend died the next day, and I sat looking at my fish tank. “Shit,” I thought.” What the hell am I going to do with a giant fish tank?”
In the end, I sold it to a woman who came to pick it up alone with a station wagon, in spite of several emails and Craigslist ads advertising that the unit was six feet high, six feet wide, and weighed several hundred pounds. When she finally came back for it with a truck and a friend, I’d already moved out, so I don’t know what she was hoping the behemoth fish tank would do for her.
But by that point, I’d moved to New York and into an apartment that would finally let me have cats, and found Harold at the 92nd St. ASPCA. While he sometimes watches TV if I’ve got one of those nature shows on, I can’t imagine Harold would be that fond of a big wet bubbling tank of food that he couldn’t get at, so we make due without fish, and its probably for the best. I don’t actually like them.