Siamese Fighting Fish
Pushcart Nominee 2023
Leaning in my doorway, wearing the sideways grin of a grown man who once got laid after both his junior and senior prom, Scott asked me to take care of his betta fish for the holiday weekend.
It wasn’t really a holiday weekend. We had a teacher workday on Friday, which Scott decided he wasn’t going to because it wasn’t like the admin took attendance. He didn’t have any work to do besides grading essays, and he could do that on his boat. I don’t understand how a public school teacher affords a boat. I asked Scott about it once, and he told me his ex-wife had inherited it when her father died. When I asked whether the maintenance was expensive, he asked me whether the maintenance of my six-year-old daughter was expensive. This didn’t seem relevant, and it took me long enough to think of an answer that he walked away chuckling with his hands in the pockets of his chinos, nodding slowly like he’d won something.
“Why don’t you take your betta fish on your boat?”
“It gets seasick.”
Neither one of us could tell whether the other was joking. This was almost always the case. The year before, he’d been my mentor teacher, despite the fact that it was only his third year at the school and we weren’t in the same department. He told me to speak to the copy machine in soothing tones and never go to staff meetings unless there was food provided. I’d spent my decade out of college in an office job where the rules were the same, but I clung to Scott’s words like a gospel revelation.
Earlier in his career, he’d been a track coach at the bigger, nicer high school across town. There were rumors he’d had an affair with a sophomore long jumper whose gender, race, and body type changed depending on who you asked. I could see Scott starting these rumors out of boredom. It always seemed like he wanted to get fired, but he was too good a teacher to pull it off.
“Feed it two to three pellets once a day.”
“Wait, two pellets or three pellets? Which is it?”
“It’s up to your discretion.”
“I’m not qualified to have discretion.”
“Okay, then two to be safe.”
I write this down on a sticky note and press it to the inside of my laptop. I google how much to feed a betta fish and discover the universal answer: 2 to 3 protein pellets. Its stomach is no bigger than one of its eyeballs. Scott keeps telling me about his betta fish, which is also called a Siamese fighting fish. Did I know it’s fiercely territorial? Did I know it could breathe air? Scott keeps calling it an it, so I don’t know whether it's a boy fish or a girl fish. This wondering makes me feel like an old man asking his granddaughter whether she paid extra for the holes in her jeans.
Because of its separation anxiety, Scott drops the betta fish at my house at six in the morning on the day of his fishing trip instead of the night before. I’m pretty sure this is a joke and there’s some other reason he needs to drop it off in the morning, but I don’t laugh just to be safe. The irony isn’t lost on me. He’s dropping his beloved pet at my house so he can go hunt, skin, and eat its brethren.
It looks at me like it wishes I’d drink bleach.
I drop two protein pellets in the water. The fish catches them just before they drift to the pebble floor, as though reluctant to go on living but unable to resist.
I set the tank on the counter, then make myself a cup of coffee. The sound of the grinder is followed by the creaking of floorboards above me. I pick up the tank and clutch it to my chest. It’s heavier than I expected. The toilet flushes. The sink runs. I walk into my bedroom, then make a hard right turn into my walk-in closet. My husband put the shelves in himself as an anniversary present. I set the tank on my bureau in front of the mirror. I flick on the lamp, whose light is so kind, so gentle, it makes me want to cry. The fish looks at ease here, safer in a smaller room, with no fluorescence to bleach its pluming fins. I flick the lamp off and close the closet door.
“You’re up early.”
“I get up early sometimes.”
I don’t mean to snap, but it’s too late. My husband frowns for an instant. I catch my reflection in the glass of his three diploma frames mounted on the wall in the hall. Summa cum laude. Pink pouches beneath my eyes. Must drink more water.
“I’m behind on grading.”
“They won’t read themselves.”
He kisses me on the cheek, smelling of spearmint and aftershave. His stomach presses hard against my hip. “Do you want me to make you egg whites?” “There are bagels.” He nods as he strides down the stairs. He likes to shower in the hallway bathroom, so he doesn’t wake me when he plays the classical music that gets him in “the zone.” This morning, it doesn’t matter because I was up anyway, but all his razors and curl-sensitive shampoos are already in there.
He doesn’t ask about the origin of the bagels. They are a dozen holes in the fabric of reality. I hear the press down the toaster and pour himself coffee. He always drinks his coffee black because his body is a temple. Mine is a strip mall, so I drink it with hazelnut creamer. He hums Handel’s Water Music into the open mouth of the fridge. When I come downstairs again, he’s left the bottle on the counter for my second cup and one hole of reality stitches itself back together.
I eat a bagel, then decide to check on my ward. By the time I reach the upstairs hall, I still haven’t decided which one, but it doesn’t matter because they’re together, Alex’s nose upturned against the glass, the fish unphased, even flattered, by her vaporous surveillance. On the other side of the tank, her magnified eyes blink back in the mirror.
My daughter gazes up at me. His great aunt had the red hair, but the blue eyes come from me. They’re royal, really, almost black in some lighting. Pediatricians like to stick lights in them and call in the nurses to gawk. She is so beautiful, my daughter, that when she recognizes beauty in other things—a buttercup along the sidewalk, Freddy Mercury’s voice on the radio, the microwave souffle her babysitter made for her during some gala I wish I could’ve been sick for—I want to laugh. Yet she keeps feeling that same awe anyway, a renewable resource gushing from her eyes, ears, and mouth at the sight of every sunset. The fish is either modest or afraid, its fins crumpled against the back wall of its tank. “It’s beautiful,” she says again, her first and favorite multisyllabic word.
“Do you want a bagel?”
It’s all I can think to say. She tells me she only eats cinnamon raisin, and I tell her, with probably too much enthusiasm, that she’s in luck.
She doesn’t like me to cut her bagel. Instead, she rips it into chunks with her small, pink hands and dips it in a bowl of cream cheese, sometimes peanut butter. I fear and admire her as she eats.
Alex insists I carry the tank downstairs and set it beside her on the kitchen counter. When a raisin falls off into the cream cheese, she picks it out.
She looks up at me, startled. I apologize, then explain about the eyeball.
“Whose fish is it?”
She rolls the raisin between her thumb and forefinger until it is a shiny, black ball.
“My friend from work.”
She keeps rolling until the raisin gets smooth and small. She glances back and forth from the raisin to the fish and back again, considering. Measuring. He says she’s a child prodigy because she memorized the periodic table last summer. I say we need to get her more toys.
The raisin is very small now.
Very small and very black. She drops it in the tank. It’s so tiny that it barely makes a sound. It disappears so quickly that later I doubt whether it happened at all. Alex finishes her bagel. The fish stares and digests. Its skirt dances. I wish it was a river. I wish it was the Gulf Stream. I stroke its tank with the outside of my hand and wonder if it sounds like wind chimes inside the walls.
Alex wants to take the fish to the bus stop, but I tell her it’s dangerous. Its tank is heavy, and all the jostling is bad for its brain development. I make up the last part, one of the duties and privileges of parenthood. She nods solemnly and climbs onto the bus.
Once inside, she presses her face against the window with wide black eyes. When she pulls away, she leaves two marks on the glass—one from her forehead, the other from the tip of her nose.
Now it’s just me and the fish. I could admire it in private in the half hour before I have to leave for work, but I bring it back to my bureau instead. For just a moment, I watch it admire its plumes in its reflection. The golden lamp beside the tank gives it golden pupils.
On Monday, Scott is back at school. I ask him when he wants to pick up his fish.
“I could follow you home.”
He throws a Rubix cube toward the ceiling and catches it, leaning back in his desk chair. He’s a physics teacher. The district is trying to get STEM teachers to emphasize literacy. In protest, Scott removes every word from his classroom wall. It’s all equations and photos of sports cars.
My classroom is full of words. I’ve got my cellphone policy, a list of strong analysis verbs. Emergency procedures. READ. Keep Calm and Write On. That Elizabeth Bishop poem.
“There’s a space in the driveway.”
I don’t know why I say this. He could just as easily have parked in the street. He nods, knowingly, says something about parking tickets.
High school gets out before elementary, which means I get the house to myself for an hour or two every afternoon. Scott didn’t need to come inside. I could’ve left him to study the stained glass framing our front door, but instead, he’s standing in my living room, wearing the flip-flops he usually reserves for Fridays so he can justify it to admin. He compliments my home library, and I can’t decide whether it’s mockery, pleasantry, or flirtation.
“You can’t possibly have read all these.”
“I have, but you shouldn’t feel bad. I couldn’t tell you whether a brick or a dollar bill would fall faster off a cliff.”
He swats at the air. His hands, I think.
“Wind resistance. It’s above my pay grade.”
“Do you want something to drink?”
“I’m just here to get my fish.”
He smooths his t-shirt over his protruding stomach—a reflexive gesture, a crack in the wall of his arrogance.
“I’ll have a scotch neat.”
He’s not as funny as he thinks he is. He always looks like he’s missed two days of shaving—never more, never less. His hair is graying along his temples. Why is it sexy for him and shameful for me? Eighty bucks at the salon every other month to try to erase ten of my thirty-five years, yet the crow’s feet persist— unbothered and unfeminine.
I glance at the clock. We got held up at school. Alex’s bus arrives in half an hour. I should tell him to stop being an asshole. I should tell him to dye his hair.
“Why did you become a physics teacher?”
He likes this question. It’s a punchline he’s practiced.
“Have you heard of Isaac Newton?”
I narrow my eyes. He blurs, and he’s more alluring that way. He could be anyone.
He says, “I didn’t think so.”
“Can’t you ever just answer a question?”
“Can’t you ever ask an interesting one?”
He adjusts his t-shirt one more time, then asks his own: “When are we going to do this?”
His flip-flops are off-brand. It rained last night. They make a wet smack as he steps to me, a hand—his hand—flying to my waist to tug me closer. For once, he’s not joking. He kisses me. I kiss him back. His spit tastes like sugar and rot. I kiss him harder, so there’s nothing to taste, only teeth against teeth, nose against cheek. How has it come to this? How—
There is a place I put the kind part of myself when the unkind part of myself can’t take the judgment any longer, when I have to do something cruel or I’ll die, so I have no choice but to maim my soul into compliance. This place has glass walls where demon faces leave their sweat behind, but I can’t see any of that because I never leave the light on. Being able to recognize the faces, to put a name to their animosity, would mean death, and I only want paralysis. Both parts of myself don’t have to accord, but they have to survive. I tell the kind part of myself to wait. I whisper comforts until the light goes out and we can’t see each other anymore, and I know she is cowering, but it doesn’t matter because I am ballooning, all red expansion and black eyes that glow.
Afterward, while dragging his finger along my collarbone, he tells me he had a crush on his high school English teacher. Mrs. Matthews. She wore high heels every day. We lie on the couch—the couch where Alex watches TV on Saturday mornings—and breathe. Scott’s stomach presses softly into the small of my back. He’s still talking about his high school English teacher as he peels away and pulls on his jeans, belt dangling from the loops. I lie there, startled at how quickly this man reenters his body as though he never left at all.
“This was nice.”
Was it? Do I take his word for it? Do I ask for the details?
“Thanks,” is all I manage. He remembers to steal The Wings of the Dove off my shelf but forgets his fish. Out of breath, I run outside to stop him, and he’s already gone. I can’t even see his truck disappearing down the end of the street. There’s only crushed leaves and a shadow of maybe oil. Maybe I imagined him—his belt buckle digging into my hip, his belt buckle scraping my stomach, his belt buckle on my kitchen floor. Regardless, he’s not here to tell me the physics of such delusions. I want the fish out of my house. The fish is a disease. I stumble up the stairs, down the hall, past the diplomas, through my bedroom, and into the closet with shelves I never asked for.
I left the light on.
My first thought is the raisin, but then I see the blood suspended in twin ribbons. It’s hard to tell which belong to the tank and which to the mirror. Betta fish, also known as Siamese fighting fish—fiercely territorial, fatally determined. It lies belly-up, forehead pressed against its ghost echo, prey defeated.
Abby Comey is a writer and high school English teacher from Washington DC. Her work is featured in Flora Fiction, Aura Review, and The Arcanist. She's penned essays for The New York Times and The Washington Post.