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Heavy Petting

The life aquatic
photo: Annie Chia

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.

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.

It should be noted here that fish are not the only sloughed-off pet in the city. I had forgotten, for instance, how unbelievably cute floppy-eared bunnies were and that people owned them, period. And birds. Having become accustomed to birds being pigeons and pigeons being rats with wings, it took me a minute to register that these little guys were beautiful. Parakeets were $20. For the price of brunch you could get a whole bird. This seemed more than fair, knowing that purebred Siamese kittens can cost more than my rent. A pet store staffer sidled up next to me at the squawking cage. "The lovebirds," he explained, "are social." The male bird had his pecker completely imbedded in the female's tail feather. "I can see that," I said. He went on to tell me that other birds, non-lovebirds, are OK if you give them toys. A parakeet doesn't know the difference between plastic jingly bell and another bird. (In human land, it is this very principle that keeps blow-up doll manufacturers in business.) In this guy, I thought I had found a kindred spirit, the small but distinct kernel of a society that recognizes more than two pet options. Filled with hope, I thought I'd try my luck with the bubbler query. "You know what?" he said. "I don't 'do' fish."

Disappointed, I steered myself into a dark hallway lined with tanks. I poked at the bug-eyed goldfish swimming past each other like taxi cabs with gland problems. I crouched down to a tank of black-and-white angel fish and smiled. As a kid, I had an angel fish named Zebra. (Pet FYI: This is kid logic. Don't name your orange tabby "Marmalade" unless you plan on toasting her.) These bizarro Zebras were eating the insides of a big dead Zebra. Tank kill.

As I made my way out the door, sans bubbler, it occurred to me that yes, the goldfish was a perfect Manhattan pet, but I had been thinking of all the wrong reasons to prove it. These anonymous and unheralded creatures crammed together in the same tank, happily swimming but realistically getting eaten occasionally. That's us too.

When I got home, Sid, in accordance with his destiny, was dead. Without him, I renamed Nancy "Fish" in an attempt to practice detachment. Then yesterday she kicked it. For my second burial at sea, I reached for my bourbon glass but stopped. Somehow it was OK to keep a live goldfish in there for a few minutes, but I worried about my dishwashing liquid's capacity to eradicate dead-fish disease. And after this trauma I was going to need a drink.

I emptied the plastic bag into the toilet, half hoping Fish would wake up from shock. And I would scoop her frazzled fins out and say, "You know I almost flushed you?" and Fish, who doesn't speak English but maybe in this case could, would say, "I know! That was close. While I have you, would you mind cooling it with the sushi?" But instead she just lay there at the center of the toilet. You buy a bowl having a certain schema of "fish in a bowl," but it clouds up faster than you thought possible and rarely lasts as long as you think it will. Of course, in that situation there's only one thing you can do: Go out into the pigeon-covered streets and find yourself another one.


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