“My fish died a few days ago,” I said.
That wasn’t true. A few days had bloomed into two weeks, and he was still there, in his tank, disintegrating into the water. I’m not sure why I didn’t tell anyone about it until now. Maybe I was afraid they would say that I was overreacting, that fish die all the time, that I should have known he wouldn’t live long. Or maybe I was afraid that they would tell me to take him out and flush him down the toilet. I just know that it was a while ago that his iridescent blue scales turned gray, and his fins turned to dust, and his eyes fell away from his head. Sometimes I look at his small body beneath the wide green leaves of his aquatic plant and see myself there. My eyes replace his, my limbs curling up to fit within him. I can feel the water surrounding me and filling my ears and blurring my vision, and I feel at home.
“I’m sorry,” He says, still looking at His phone, and I want to cry.
I don’t know what I expected from Him, what I wanted Him to say, but it wasn’t enough. The familiar feeling of vomit pushed itself into my mouth and I swallowed it back, and the stomach acid burned my insides all the way back down.
I stared at Him, my arms wrapped around my knees because the cool air of His A/C seared the exposed skin of my thighs, and waited for Him to say anything else. Maybe He would eventually look up and see me rocking ever so slightly, my face scrunched up, and ask me what was wrong, but He didn’t, He only kept to his phone, and so I went to mine, but the feeling of water splashing around in my skull kept me from focusing on anything other than the sound of the waves.
He didn’t talk to me anymore, or at least, we didn’t have conversations. I would come over and He would ask me about my day and I would ask about His and and then we would lay in bed together and then I would go home. On our first date we talked for hours, sharing too much information about our childhood and past crushes and our embarrassing traumas. I talked so much my throat burned the next day.
“I don’t think I’ve ever said that out loud,” I said as He wrapped an arm around me. I had told him that I thought it was impossible for someone to truly love me, that people got bored of me, that everyone always ended up leaving. He pulled me closer and promised He would never do that to me, and then, for the first time, He kissed me.
When I got home that night, late, always too late, I took off my clothes. I took off the underwear that He had touched earlier, and the necklace that He had given me on my birthday. The jewel was a bright red, like a smouldering coal that had burned and burrowed its way into my chest. I couldn’t breathe with it on, I never could, and so I ripped it off, letting it drop to the floor along with my other clothes. I walked to my bedroom completely naked, yet still sweltering.
The tank sat on my nightstand, where it always was; it was ten gallons, with rainbow rocks and three sprawling plants. Every night I would get home from His house and watch him as he poked his head out from behind a leaf and I would tell him about what had happened. Even with no words, I knew he understood. I knew him before Him, when I would sit on my bed for hours doing nothing and eating nothing and saying nothing and being nothing. He would blink at me, and I would blink back at him, and we would share that moment together until one of us would break and turn away.
I got up onto my bed, looking down into the water where his body lay, now nothing more than a skeleton. I thought once again about flushing him down into the pipes, and the rushing, rushing noise collapsed into my body and I began to sob. I wanted to hold him in my arms, to comfort him and say it was all going to be okay even though it wasn’t. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry for the life he had, it was always my fault, and that I never paid attention to the slowing down of his swimming, the dullness in his color, the leftover food at the bottom of the bowl that he never ate. I never saw it, and now he was a skeleton.
I lifted my foot and dipped it into the water, and then my other foot. I crouched down to submerge my torso, and then my arms, my neck, and then finally, my head. My tears disappeared in the tank and a stillness came over me. I reached over to my fish and held him in my hand. Together we sat there, looking back at each other until eventually, finally, I was able to breathe.
Sarah F. Jones is currently a senior at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington earning a BFA in creative writing. One of her essays was nominated as a finalist for the 2021 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize. She currently resides in coastal North Carolina with her cat, Juliet, and her dog, Pixel.