Heavy Petting

In a city where dogs are treated like test babies, there's no love for the lowly goldfish

The other night I changed my goldfish's water blind drunk. I came home late, put my fish in his temporary bourbon-glass hell, and filtered some water. Brita operates at the speed of dial-up Internet. Plenty of time to spot an opened bottle of wine with a glass's worth left in it. With nothing liquid in the fridge not labeled "honey mustard," I poured myself a glass and was about to take a sip when I noticed my fish staring at me, hovering. My fish only mouths one thing: O. O. O. O. It's constantly having either an orgasm or a nervous breakdown. Sure, me too, I thought. "Bottom's up, fish," I said, and amended my toast, "well, not for you, hopefully. I think we both know what I mean." And I clinked his cup and sipped. If I'm making myself sound like an alcoholic, I'm not. What I am is an aquaholic. I'm addicted to my fish, and when you consider why, you should be addicted to my fish too.

In New York, where people treat their dogs like test babies and their cats like boyfriends, there is no support system for owning goldfish. Actually, there's no support system for anything you can't sleep with, period. But that's not the point. Celebrity fish never appear on Page Six, you can't string them up outside Harry's Burritos, and most New Yorkers would probably prefer to play a little Beta Roulette and leave their fish for a Hamptons weekend than give a friend the keys to feed it. Goldfish in particular are considered an impulse-buy pet. They average between two and six dollars. Their lives literally have almost no value.

Yet a few weeks ago my impulse bought two. To demonstrate how incredibly close I thought fish were to a plant at the time, I will tell you that I handed the cashier my plastic sack of water and gold so she could scan it. I also put the fish in a bowl on my kitchen counter (being careful to do all salmon chopping and sushi ordering on the opposite counter). Still, it seemed inevitable that I would kill them both. Not only did I name them Sid and Nancy, but I took a casual office survey regarding the necessity of a bubbler/eyesore and ignored the results. "Don't feel bad if they die," one friend said. "You'll get another. That's what fish do, they die." I started to wonder if he was right, if these living things were put on the earth with the sole purpose of leaving it.

The life aquatic
photo: Annie Chia
The life aquatic

No one feels that way about a cat or a dog, not in this city, where it's such a concerted effort to own one. Aside from the long-term financial obligations—doggy day cares and diamond kitty collars—people bend their whole lives around their pets. I know one woman who was debating between two jobs and took the lower-paying one because the offices were a block away from her apartment. She could run home during lunch and walk the 200-pound St. Bernard that lives in her 400-square-foot home. For you Fields Medal contenders, that's a half-pound of slobber per foot. Or the equivalent of carpeting your apartment with Birkin-bag-size dogs. And for what? Companionship? Go buy a pair of fuzzy slippers and call it a day. People think their cats and dogs understand who they are better than any human because people live in these tiny spaces where the chances are they're right. These animals know every corner and every hour of your compact life. Fish, on the other hand, are smart enough not to sniff around for you. What happens outside the bowl stays outside the bowl.

What's obvious to me now is that my pro-fish-as-bamboo-plant friend had never actually owned one. A fish, that is. Imagine that sensation of superimposing your attachments on a dog or a cat heightened. Halve the intelligence and shrink the dog run into a bowl and what do you get? The smaller the brain, the wider our capacity to inflict our personalities on it. It's like dating a model. Thus, I decided the goldfish is the ideal New York pet, overlooked as the most emblematic of how we live, love, and float. I am told the reason it's not cruel to put fish in a bowl (or, say, a twentysomething in a studio apartment) is because they are saved from trauma by a three-second memory. Stupid swimming thing. We shouldn't flatter ourselves; we're not so different. We forget we know better and eat too much at restaurants. We move in streams from place to place, freak out at the first sign of disruption, and it's nearly impossible to tell what sex the pretty ones are these days.

By two weeks in I had grown attached to Sid and Nancy. I wanted them to live. After all, they knew the real me. I decided if I was going to commit aquacide, I certainly wasn't going to do it by accident. No fish of mine was going to die unfiltered and unsung. I went to the pet store to settle the bubbler issue once and for all.

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