An August in the Early 2000s
My husband and I kept the first Betta fish (red, quick) in a
bowl—itself like a fist-sized drop, a temporary planet. We
hoped the fish would do something for us. The summer had been one long
heat-wave, and the failure of our marriage bore down. We could have
split up. If we had, there wouldn't have been any tangible losses or
gains. We were young; we didn't yet have children, or any money. But we
were desperate to stay together—to remain in that snoozy
town, in a brown-brick housing complex inhabited mostly by elderly
widows and widowers, in our tiny, low-ceilinged studio apartment.
Inside it, the air shimmered and rippled with hostility—but
we couldn't leave. Neither of us had anywhere else to go. We had no one
else to be.
At first, the Betta fish provided some relief. "Fighting
fish"—this alternate name for its genus made us laugh
together for the first time in months. "Fighting
we'd say, each f
launching flecks of saliva from our mouths, his aimed toward me, mine
at him. It was joke, a parody of the anger that, before we got the
fish, had not been funny at all. A strange vibrancy came upon
us—the Betta a ruby glint in the corners of our eyes.
We named it Benny, another joke because that was his
name—my husband's. I'd come home from work and say, "Hey
Bennys, how were your days?" Now, instead of two, we were three. By the
second week of August our laughter dwindled, but the silence that
replaced it wasn't as awful as it used to be. When my husband and I
spent whole evenings not speaking to each other, it seemed possible
that we were doing so not out of rancor, but out of respect for the
creature among us who had no vocal chords. When we quarreled the fish
kept swimming, ignoring our outbursts—complicit. "You're the
love of my life, Benny," I once said, and my husband and I cracked up.
The punch-line was that neither of us knew which Benny I meant, and
either way my declaration was preposterous. By mid-August, the laughter
Betta fish will gnaw each other to death. So when we got a second one,
this time blue, we gave it a bowl all its own. Watching the two of them
seemed like destiny: this side-by-side configuration had been the plan
all along. We called the new fish Sapphire. Every day or so, either my
husband or I moved the bowls a tiny bit closer together. Neither of us
ever saw the other do it, but it kept happening until the bowls
touched. We said terrible things, speculations that seemed to border on
hopes: "What if one fish leaps out of its bowl into the other?" "What
if the fishes' inability to kill each other drives them insane?" By the
third week in August we had stopped speaking to each other completely,
unless it was about the fish. My husband said: "What if they both ram
the bowls with their heads, trying to get at each other, until they
shatter the glass?" I said: "What if they really do go crazy, and each
fish fights itself
to the death?"
But the fish didn't do what we expected. No, they didn't charge the
glass in-between, not even one stiff glance. Their circles were
private, neat, clean. Together my husband and I waited, our teeth set
hard, top pressed down to bottom—the air between us snapped
tight, while the Bettas swam their tranquil circles. We watched them
die from a mysterious algae; somehow despite their separate habitats it
infested them both. Scales shook off them like spices, or flakes from a
croissant—the color of them, one blue and one red, in crumbs
on the surface. Finally we witnessed them float up like balloons. We
tossed them out the door, into a bush. Other animals could fight over
their bodies. It was OK. They had failed to rid us of our resentments,
the ones that spiked from our backs like wings—the ones that
kept us quiet that August, that whole hot month like a welt.
Emma Smith-Stevens lives in Gainesville. She has stories in or coming from Conjunctions, Subtropics,
PANK and others.
Read more of her work in the archive.
Detail of photo on main page courtesy
of Olya Smith.
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