The Goldfish

Christine Stoddard

Finn had always wanted a dog, but I knew I’d be the one scooping mounds of kibble induced diarrhea and vacuuming stubborn hairs from the carpet. So I decided to teach my only child a lesson in patience and assured him that we would adopt a dog in a few years. And, no, we wouldn’t keep a cat in the meantime. I needed to win just one fight in my life. Finn met that lesson with hot tears and clenched fists—a response even more passionate than his reaction to kale chips and pea soup served cold.


Even when he wasn’t putting on a show, I’d find Finn gazing out the window forlornly, sans top hat and jazz hands. Somehow, whenever I stared out the window, I noticed the unlucky baby birds who’d fallen from their nests rather than flying off into the blue sky, instead landing on the hot sidewalk, burning in the sun. Or I spotted every weed in the lawn. Or imagined my husband copulating in the rosebushes with the neighbor’s buxom au pair with all the sexual intrigue of two stink bugs. But when Finn looked out the window, he saw frolicking canines no matter what, even when they weren’t really there. He narrated their activities, from burying bones to chasing after Frisbees.


I blamed television and comic books. Charlie Brown had Snoopy. Timmy had Lassie. Tintin had Snowy. My Finn yearned for Sherwood, an ebony and chestnut dachshund like Crusoe, the little Internet celebrity. All it took was seeing him on “Good Morning America” once, and that was that. Total devotion. Toys were out and dogs were in. Finn even asked me if I would put all of his toys in the attic “to make room for Sherwood.”


Since fluoxetine had brought back the insomnia I knew in my pre-Prozac days, I had nothing better to do at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday. Not a teddy bear or plastic fire truck remained. I gathered the toys into two garbage bags and piled them behind my hope chest where I now store my wedding gown and wedding album. To my surprise, Finn did not change his mind. Instead of sleeping with a stuffed animal, he sleep with a print-out of Crusoe under his pillow. His pixel pooch.


When the “phase” was still thriving six months later, I needed a plan. A hamster? Too…mousy. A gecko? Too…slimy. A canary? Too…Disney. These questions distracted me during my therapy sessions, posing much less of an unpleasant challenge than reflecting on my past. Dr. Dafts never seemed to notice, but I’ll never know what he wrote in his paisley notebook. All that matters is that I get my pills. The pills help me forget the questions I would otherwise be asking myself in the dead of night, lying in my cold bed, separated from my husband’s room by two floors.


After much deliberation, I settled on a goldfish for Finn, a pearlscale to be precise. In another bout of unoriginality, I named her Pearly. She looks like she swallowed a lychee fruit. I picked her because she was the fattest fish in the store. I felt we shared a personal connection.


Now, as I stand on the kitchen, Pearly barely moves in the plastic bag on the counter. Her golf ball of a body budges only to breathe. I don’t know if I’ve selected a sluggish fish or if she’s dying in the plastic bag. The question only makes me more anxious to clean and set up her tank. I’m not sure why I bought a full-size tank when I bought just one fish. Maybe as a reason to buy more fish. With more fish in the tank, it’s less likely Finn will notice when one dies. Then he’ll suffer no heartbreak. I’ve suffered enough for the both of us. On that note, I briefly wonder where Finn’s father is at that moment before telling myself that I don’t want to know.


Pearly seems to be staring at me. Every time I look at her, she’s looking at me. There are too many smudges on this tank for it to be new. I should’ve asked the manager for a discount. A discount for dirtiness. Finn won’t notice that it’s dirty, but every time I look at the tank, I’ll think back to this moment, cleaning it in the kitchen sink. It’s one of those moments you can’t ever imagine as a kid one day wondering what it will be like to be a parent. Then you’re a parent and it happens so often that you can’t believe you never thought of it. You can’t believe you ever thought parenthood would be fun or rewarding. All those games of “House” really tricked you. In “House,” you can always get the baby to shut up right away, the dog doesn’t ever bite or poop, and the husband never cheats.


Maybe that’s the real reason I won’t give Finn his beloved Crusoe; I don’t want to break the spell. If I give him a dog, his dream won’t come true. Instead, he’ll realize the falsehood of his dream. I’m too broken to be enchanted, but Finn still has faith in Man’s Best Friend. Once that faith dies, who or what will he trust anymore? I don’t want to contribute to his cynicism, however inevitable. Why make wiener dogs existential?


But there’s drama even in goldfish. I couldn’t just prepare the tank; I had to break it. It had to slip off the edge of the sink and smash on the hardwood floor. And I just had to decide to go barefoot that day. If I move, my toes will get cut and bleed into the William Sonoma and Restoration Hardware decor, and that’s not even the most pathetic part.


The worst part—or maybe the best, if I finally admit I’m a masochist—is that Pearly’s bag went flying and somehow the tank pierced it. Pearly slipped out and ended up on the floor, among all those shards of glass. Now I’m paralyzed, no different than when I found my husband in bed with another woman.


The same weekend Finn began begging for his own Crusoe, my husband began begging for forgiveness. I haven’t slept with him since, but that’s no different than before. I never fully healed from bringing Finn into this world. These are things that never come up in childhood games of “House,” either: vaginal stitches, a bruised perineum, bleeding that lasts four weeks after childbirth.


I look down, focusing on a single shard of glass, and think back to my high school friend Angela’s advice to cut along the blue vein on the inside of my wrist.


“The first cut is the deepest, but, if you do it right, you only need one cut.”


Suddenly Pearly flops, sputters, and gasps what I know to be her last breath. If this fish will fight, why won’t I?


I leap over the glass, pausing to flick off the little shard that sticks to my heel when I land. Then I grab the broom and dustpan by the pantry and began sweeping up the glass. Finn will be home from school soon.




The Goldfish