1.) Decide an Aquarium is right for you. We had first talked of getting a puppy. American culture holds a general consensus that dogs are the go to pets for happiness; I mean, we can communicate with them.
My first instinct had been, yes!
“But wait,” I said.
She lifted her eyes to me, head titled down, eyebrows raised. Well?
We were to leave in four weeks. The trip to expand just over two-months: July through September. Our plane tickets would take us from Denver (DIA) to Chicago (ORD) to Bangkok (BKK) to Phuket (HKT), where after a week, we’d catch a ferry down to the island of Ko Phi Phi. We booked a cabana for 10 days via Expedia. It had air-conditioning.
I had predictions for Thailand: Tee and I would slurp pulpy mango cocktails at a beachside bar. Toes digging into warm sand. How,she’d ask as the sun set, is it possible we ever forget how beautiful the world is?We would play gin rummy. Our deck of cards embellished with bikini clad girls on the back. We would laugh when Tee confused a spade with a club. Our second drinks would soften us. My shoulders, slightly pink, would smell like summer. Look at your freckles, she would say, they’re so sweet.I’d place my hand on the plastic table in-between us. She’d take it in her own. Later, we would waltz back to our cabana, where inside, Tee would kiss me for the first time in months. Hard. She’d wipe fat tears from my cheeks. Fingers smelling of rum. I’m so sorry.I’m so sorry, my baby. We would peel off the other’s damp bathing suits. Would suck one another’s salty necks. Would make love. Would both come. Would promise to never let things get so bad again.
The impending future was fragile. We couldn’t get a puppy. The time away would’ve been detrimental for its training, anyhow. Oh, God, and its mental health. Separation-anxiety. I typed the words into my own little screen. I read aloud, “Symptoms include: excessive barking, urinating/defecating indoors, chewing, trying to escape.”
“Fine,” she said. Making her voice sound like a little kid’s. Tee’s thumb was still gliding upwards on the screen. Her nails painted, Breakfast-in-Red. I wanted to take her finger-tips into my mouth and taste them. Some instinctual part of my mind associating the color with sweetness. Berries on a bush.
No dog. An aquarium was the alternative.
2.) Find the appropriate tank (size matters).Tee had grown up with fish tanks on her bedside tables. Always a lone Goldfish or Betta. 1-gallon, 2-gallons. She said she loved them, that each fish had its own personality. Her favorite had been a white Elephant Ear Betta she’d named Bubba. Every morning he would swim to the top of the tank and spin in a circle. A ritual of connectedness. But those tanks were hers, and this one was ours.We wanted a full aquarium. Schools of fish. Minatare sculptures. We needed something bigger.
Turning to the classifieds, Boulder pets—Craigslist, Tee selected the box to include surrounding areas.
30 Gallon Fish Tank (Erie) pic--$30
I have a 30- gallon aquarium tank in good condition (no cracks or leaks) with hood and lights.
The man behind the post was named Chris. Driving his neighborhood, in search of brass numbers 3119 atop a two-car garage, brought about the sensation of navigating a funhouse of mirrors. Like everything around us was nothing more than a reflection of something else. New constructions. Wooden panels lacquered in HOA approved swab SW 9027: Pale Moss. When we pulled up Tee’s front right tire bumped the curb. Chris was waiting for us in his driveway, baseball cap backwards, scuff marks along the toes of his Nikes, empty tank at his feet. I asked why he didn’t want it anymore.
“I tried to make a self-sufficient eco-system, but it takes a lot of precision,” he said. “I couldn’t get it right.”
“What’s wrong with it just being a fish tank?”
“Too much work.”
In the car ride home, I was hopeful. I told Tee the sky looked like that famous Georgia O’Keefe painting—something about the clouds. My hands were tucked in between my thighs. Tee’s were busy on the steering wheel. The road perpetually straight. We had both of our windows rolled down and the sun-roof opened. It was possible she didn’t hear me.
3.) Add substrate. I stood by as Tee pulled an old bag of aquarium gravel from the closet. There were handfuls of black pebbles, but mostly they were fluorescent blue, pink, green and purple. Stones designed for children. They smelt of her past fish.
I had moved into Tee’s family home six months prior, after nearly a year together. Her mom had given up the master bedroom for us. It sat in the lower level of the house, separate, as much as a floor of distance allows, from her two younger sisters. The suite opened into a large room, with a smaller alcove attached on the right. It included a full bathroom (standing shower) and large closet. We tucked the bed into the alcove and used the open space to set up a cheap futon, coffee table, and bookshelf—mimicking a studio apartment. Both full time college students then, 20 and 22 years old. The life we could build together had its limitations.
Tee had a six drawer, black dresser that we’d pushed against a wall in our “living room.” The piece of furniture was nearly five feet long and sturdy. We placed our aquarium atop it.
“We have to spread the pebbles two inches thick along the base,” she said.
Tee frequently talked about how life had become suffocating. Her sisters looked to her as a mother. Her mother looked to her as a confidant. By living with them and me—who looked to her for nearly everything—Tee’s space felt constantly encroached, leaving her feeling possessive over insignificant things. I remember her once yelling about my sipping from her water bottle, saying, “I just want one thing that is only mine.” I remember crying in the bathroom after the fact, contracting myself to build an invisible force field around Tee and her things.
Requiring teamwork, our hands labored in close vicinity, we were very careful not to touch. We leveled the rocks with our palms, the task relieving us of stumbling through small talk. After, we leaned down in front of the tank to check our work. The line of gravel was even. I thought the neon colors were in poor taste, but didn’t say so.
“What’s next?” It was an annoying thing that I did—asking questions I knew the answers to.
“What do you think?” she asked. Adding, “Duh,” for effect.
4.) Fill with water.A safe temperature range for a freshwater tank is between 76°- 80°F. This can be achieved and maintained by purchasing an aquarium heater. We tried to gauge the water against our inner wrists. Adjusting the taps until the stream felt comparable to a warm mouth.
I helped via plastic cup from a fast-food restaurant: Taco Bell, size X-Large, 40-oz. Tee, a hefty glass measuring cup, which held 64 liquid ounces.
The sink in our bathroom was shallow. It took three attempts before we figured out, that in order to make the cup fit, Tee needed to push the glass in straight, tilt the lip as it touched the spout, then immediately pull up again.
We dumped the water quickly. The faucet was powerless to replenish our cups just as promptly, which resulted in our standing together at the basin.
The first time it happened, Tee said, “This is fun.”
“I’m glad we’re doing it,” I agreed.
The second time, we kept our eyes locked on the stream, waiting for my cup to fill enough to exit. “Hurry up,” she said to the pipes.
Tee had blamed depression for the wall rising between us. My grip on her diminishing tenderness had tightened. Any lightness I once possessed had evaporated. I felt wounded by everything. We fought about the uncomplicated parts of relationships. Kissing, curling into one another in bed, even holding hands took on connotations that Tee could not bear. She would tell me, “I just want to touch you for the sake of touching you.” Worried that I could not separate action (or lack there-of) from meaning—that a kiss in the morning, per se, implied that she loved me, while no kiss suggested the latter—she decided against affection altogether.
We turned towards grand gestures in hopes of dismantling the bricks. I.e., two months in Thailand. I.e., aquarium, i.e., a physical entity in which Tee could redirect the love and nurturing she could no longer share with me. I’d like to think we knew better than to have a baby, but I know that may be untrue. Lucky then, that our bodies were incapable of producing one. Science had, as of yet, found no accessible way to bind our respective eggs in a petri dish, and nine months later hand us our infant, wrapped tightly in a pastel blanket, with Tee’s button nose and my blue eyes.
The seconds at the sink grew inexplicably tense. I can best describe our movements as eating a peach, so soft, until suddenly nothing but a hard pit. Tee’s measuring cup, at first spilling over the brim, was soon pulled away from the stream once the water reached the red line marking seven cups, then five, then consistently at 3¼, when I’d return.
4.) Condition tap water with Chlorine-Neutralizer.Tee had a yellow squeeze bottle of Aqua Safe (5 ml recommended per ten gallons of water. Dosage varies according to brand). We checked the expiration date: good until October.
The previous fall I had decided on Tee forever. We’d been at a Halloween party and met an ordained minister, a girl with short hair named Leah, in the kitchen. We all had red Solo cups in our hands.
“Are you two in love?” she asked.
“My God, yes,” I said.
“Like never before,” Tee said.
“I can marry you right now,” Leah said. I have a distinct memory of looking over at Tee—she was wearing red lipstick, her hair in a bun—asking myself if she were a person I wanted to spend my life with, and concluding that yes, I did. We wrote vows on the back of credit card application envelopes. We used cheap plastic party rings the shape of spiders as temporary symbols of forever. We both said, “I do.” The marriage itself was inconsequential, of course, except it calcified the idea that I was no longer someone bobbing along in the vastness of the world, unattached. My life was bound to Tees.
Tee counted the drops, one to 300. Mostly in her head. Occasionally saying a number out loud—to include me. Fifty. Two hundred.Two hundred twenty-five. Two hundred seventy-five. Two hundred seventy-six.She threw herself to the floor when she finished.
“I think I just gave my thumb tendinitis,” she said.
“You should’ve let me do half,” I said.
“You really think I needed your help to do that?”
“You’re the one saying your thumb hurts.”
“You’ve never heard a joke before?” she said. “Fucks sake.”
The instructions suggest waiting 24 hours before adding fish. To give the water time settle.
5.) Make an aquarium blue print. That night, we did research in bed. The left side of my body was pressed against the drywall, perpetually cool. Goosebumps rose from my exposed skin—calves and forearms. Two feet of space in between us. Figuratively speaking, we were in different worlds. Tee surfed PetSmart’s website. Had selected the search by pet tab, dropped down to fish, clicked around. I snooped over her shoulder, she noticed. Annoyed, she read out loud, “Advised: Stick to the rule of thumb: one inch of fish per gallon of water. Advised: Stock your tank with species that prefer to swim at a variety of depths. This will keep things more active. Fish can be categorized four ways: Any level swimmers, Top level swimmers, Middle level swimmers, and Bottom dwellers.”
She looked at me, “Happy? Leave me alone now.”
Tee didn’t need my help researching fish tanks and I was preoccupied, anyhow, so I skimmed articles about relationships: The Effects of Stonewalling, Twelve Signs that a Marriage is Doomed, Twelve Signs that a Relationship Will Last, Twelve Signs that Your Relationship Can Still be Saved.Checklists. (Take away: agreeing with 8+ out of 12 seemed the appropriate number of reasons to either leave or stay.) My stomach soured. I angled my phone.
I became engrossed in an interview. A PhD—running a 3-day/2-night relationship workshop out in California—claimed the ability to predict (with 96% accuracy!) if a failing marriage could be salvaged. She only needed an hour to do so. This was bolded.
The PhD studied couples as they ate breakfast on a sunny patio. I could envision the setting, assuming 96% accuracy, too: annual flowers in bloom, trimmed hedges in place of a fence, a distinct sea salt and sandalwood breeze, freshly squeezed orange juice. A place where life, outside of the relationship, was very, very good. People most authentically reveal their potential when there is no conflict to eclipse it.
For simplicity the PhD refers to the example spouses A and B.
A is nose deep in the morning paper. B is sipping Peruvian coffee with cream. B spots a hummingbird fluttering before a petunia the color of bubblegum. B says, “Look at this bird!” And here’s where it matters. A will do one of two things.
1.) A puts down the paper. A asks, “Where is the bird?” B points. B says, “It’s so green.” A looks. A sees. A says, “Like a lime.” B says, “I never realized how little hummingbirds are.” A says, “Huh, I guess I didn’t either.”
Revelation is shared.
2.) A keeps reading the paper. A glances over to the flowers, but doesn’t really look. A says, “Nice.” The moment to connect forfeited.
It occurred to me then, that love was like a magic trick. The one where your glasses disappear while you’ve been instructed to check your pockets for your wallet. Distracted. You don’t even notice the magician pulling the frames off the bridge of your nose. It hurt me to wonder what Tee and I had lost, our attentions focused on the wrong places.
6.) Don’t forget the appropriate hardware.“This is everything we need to buy tomorrow,” Tee said, showing me an illuminating shopping list on her phone screen. Gravel Vacuum, Heater, Thermometer, Power filter, Filter cartridges, etc.
Here was an opportunity for connection! I put down my own phone, leaned in towards her, read off the items. “I’m excited to decorate,” I said. “We could pick a color scheme?”
I saw a thought enter her mind. I would have guessed red.
“Can I show you something hilarious?” she asked.
Tossing her phone on the side table, she grabbed her laptop from the floor. A bigger screen, so we could look together. Her delicate fingers tapped the keyboard. Little clicks. www.ratemyfishtank.com “Check this shit out,” she said. She smiled. Straight teeth. Never braces. Small. White. Gums.
We scrolled through pages of fish tanks. An online competition, of sorts. Each picture accompanied by a list of information: country, a quick description of the tank, advice, fish kept, corals/plants and an “about you” section. Rating was done on a scale of one to ten. Each number a small circle, 1s were blue and 10s were orange. Five was a mix of the two, murky.
The site had it all—tiny fish bowls in crowded college dorms, 500-gallon salt water tanks of the one percent, and 30-gallon tanks on bedroom dressers. We oohed and awed at the underwater worlds of the internet. Common themes were: Sites of Ancient Greek or Roman ruins, marine reefs, beach vacations, and shipwrecks (frequently pirate).
We clicked the thumbnail of a colossal aquarium, posted by fishlover24. The tank was listed at 32,767 gallons, built into a kitchen wall. About: Michigan, United States. Advice—bigger is always better. Species: Ur basic aquarium fish. About you: I’m a CEO.
Undoubtedly, clipped from a luxury home magazine, the pictures were showcasing the architecture rather than aquatic life. The sink and counters were built of reflective chrome. Props littered the frames. Fat bottomed bottles of champagne, a bowl the size of toilet bowl filled with lemons the size of footballs. “Holy GMOS,” Tee said, pointing to the fruit. The tank itself was anticlimactic. Blue overhead lights illuminated all-white ceramic corals. In the wild, bleached corals are a sign of poor environmental conditions and the decaying state of the Earth, but, in fishlover24’s tank, they were aesthetically neat. I could only make out two fish in the photograph. Small and yellow.
“What are the odds fishlover24 is real?” Tee asked.
“0%. A CEO would never type ‘ur,’” I said.
We were laughing. What would the PhD have determined? That we might make it?
7.) Go shopping!We resolved to make a nice day of it. Waking up early, and stopping in a café for coffees en route to the pet store. Tee ordered a mocha. Me, an iced macchiato. Intermittently we shared sips. Sitting outside, she was squinting. Her hand flat above her eyes like a visor. The ensuing trip to Thailand came up in conversation. Overall tone: pessimistic.
“I don’t know if I can handle the plane ride,” she said. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 had vanished the year prior. 239 presumed fatalities. She’d followed the media frenzy closely, resulting in a phobia of flying. Tee was having repeated nightmares of our plane crashing into the ocean. She worried they were premonitions.
“So, you’re not going to go?” I asked. “Tee, we really need this.”
She shook her head and frowned. “It’s like you don’t hear me.”
Our arguments were always the shape of circles. The conversation ended, not because she felt validated, or we resolved any of our feelings, but because it was 9 o’clock and the pet store was open. The car ride over was silent.
The automatic doors parted for us at PetSmart. Walking through, the overhead vent blasted our bodies with air reeking of cooling fluid. My legs went immediately prickly. Rushing sounds of the filtration system permeated the silence hanging between Tee and I. Everywhere we looked, everything was blue.
“Can this just be a good time?” she asked me. Pleading. Her fingers were wrapped around the handle of a hefty shopping cart. I wanted to touch her, as an act of softness, but she was so off limits to me then. I only nodded.
“Okay, let’s get all the hardware stuff out of the way, then we can pick decorations together,” she said.
We checked things off the list, item by item. I kept a running tally of dollars spent. An aquarium heater for a 30-gallon tank runs around thirty-five dollars. A digital thermometer, $14.99. Air filter, $36.99. Filter cartridges (to be changed monthly) six for $20. When she checked off “cleaning tools,” our total was $161. The ensuing trip to Asia was in my mind. The cost of tuk-tuks. Hostels. A snorkeling day-trip. We both had limited funds. A panic fluttered in my stomach. I didn’t want to spend so much on a fish tank.
**Spoiler: We would not make it to Thailand. A mechanical issue at O’Hare. 24-hour delay issued. The airline would provide vouchers for a 3-star hotel, where we’d shuttle with other disgruntled passengers. In the morning, over our continental breakfast, Tee would say that she was not going Bangkok. The postponement too bad an omen. Will we break up if I go?I could not eat the cherry strudel on my plate. I knew you’d ask that. Well, will we? A therapist once told me humans lean in towards familiarity, even if the outcome will be negative. Comfort in knowing what to expect. I would return to Denver with her. Tee would cry from anxiety on the flight. She would decline my offers of comfort.
Tee turned our cart onto aisle four. Other sections were divvied up by little blue signs: water care, hoods and lighting, food, but décor was a branch all its own. We were surrounded by ceramic reefs, plastic houses with wooden wheels, bridges and dragons. Pink gems, and purple gems, and clear gems, and bags of marbles, and bags of stones all hung on hooks.
Tee picked up a miniature cherry blossom tree, immaculately detailed, the flower petals faded from pink to white. “What do you think?” she asked.
It was $23.99. For a tank our size, we needed one large figurine ($30-$45), two medium ($19-$25, like the cherry blossom tree) and a few small ($5-$15).
“What do I think? What do I think?” I was asking myself, mostly.
Her eyes narrowed.
“Tee, I’m using money from my Thailand budget for this. I didn’t expect it to all cost so much.”
“So, what are you saying?” Her tone was harsh.
“I’m just feeling very stressed out about the money.”
The shelves behind Tee were bursting with color. Neon orange flowers sprouted off a turquoise ceramic cactus. A deep-sea diver holding a vibrantly pink cocktail. The fluorescent lights illuminated her so clearly, I could not mistake the look on her face for anything other than what it was.
“I wanted to have fun with you today.” She said in a way that suggested she was alone in this. “It’s never fun anymore.”
“I wanted that, too,” I said. I wanted to giggle at figurines of pineapples wearing heart shaped sunglasses, googly eyes shark heads, flamingo pool rings, coconut shells and beach umbrellas. I wanted to be mesmerized by the hues of artificial ferns. I wanted the hardest decision of that day to be choosing between backsplash sheets, Blue Ocean Shore Ripples or Underwater Treasures Sunken Forest. I wanted it to be easy. I also wanted to be able to afford to do things in Thailand. I started to cry. I couldn’t help it.
“I’m not going to argue with you over plastic trees, Michelle.”
I could never explain to Tee, or her to me, the core quandaries. My not wanting to spend two hundred dollars to set up a fish tank, meant to her that I didn’t think our relationship was worth it. And her fear of flying, registered to me as an excuse, a way out of our trip, that I couldn’t question, or at least that I wasn’t supposed to question. These things were not true, but we believed them to be.
She picked out the rest of the decorations without asking my opinion (cherry blossom tree, bridge, speckled grey cave, little sign that said, “no fishing,” tiny treasure chest, teal and purple plants). The fish species were selected from the list of PetSmart recommendations: Neon Tetra (eight, $2.50 per fish), Albino Cory Catfish (three, $3.49), Dalmatian Molly (two, $2.49). The collared shirt associate, armed with a blue net, scooped up the fish easiest to catch into half-full plastic baggies. We split the cost at the register. I charged it to my credit card.
8.) Set up your tank. Somewhere between the décor aisle of PetSmart and our bedroom, the aquarium became only Tee’s. I wasn’t invited to bury the plastic stands of the silk ferns, or ponder which side of the tank the “no fishing” sign looked best on. The only job I had was to stay out of her way.
I watched her hands through the tank as they arranged, and rearranged the ornaments. Warped from the water, they looked big, fluid, so very far away. She fastened the thermometer, struggled with plastic tubes until the air stone to spit a stream of bubbles, and when the water came to temperature, she began releasing the fish from their little plastic baggies into their home. Starting with the Tetras, her fingers untied a black rubber band. She let the bag float for a moment, then turned it over, dumping it out. The fish were not stunned. They began swimming downward.
9.) Sit back and enjoy. Scientific studies have proven the calming sounds of water, passing through filtration systems, reduces stress and can aid in getting a good night’s sleep. More surprisingly, having fish nearby can actually diminish the feeling of pain (dentist offices will attest this to be true). Research states: Staring into an aquarium—overhead lights illuminating a tranquil world, glistening scales, colors of almost unfathomable beauty, translucent fins, and plants made of silk that appear to be dancing with the rocking of the water—can simply make things better.
Tee often sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the aquarium and watched it like a theatrical play. Keeping her nose close enough to the glass, that had it been a TV, she would’ve strained her eyes against the pixels. From the futon, I’d tuck my feet underneath me and observe her. If she ever felt my gaze, she never said.
Life inside the tank was subservient. It needed Tee to keep the algae at bay, to sprinkle the correct amount of fish food pellets, and fish food flakes on the surface, to be half emptied and refilled routinely, to remain habitable. These were things she could give. “All the work it takes is worth it,” she’d told me. “It makes me happy.”
Only once, I settled beside her on the carpet. Knees pulled in, my arms wrapped around my legs. I thought of the Dentist office I went up to growing up. How there was a wall in the lobby with a square cut out, and an aquarium inserted. I tried to remember how I felt better by its presence. I don’t know that I ever did.
“Look here,” Tee said. Her finger hovered before the tank. “The catfish is sleeping.”
I peered into a plastic cave, but it was too dark inside to make out the fish. Tiny air bubbles emerged from the black and floated upward, clustering at the surface.
Michelle Gurule is a queer writer from Denver, Colorado. She is a second year MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of New Mexico, where she is Blue Mesa Review’s nonfiction editor. Her work will also be featured in Alien's upcoming August issue. Michelle is currently working on a memoir.
Art:Alex ClineYou gotta learn to keep warm through the long windy nightsDigital ilustration 2018