Jan/Feb 2015  •   Fiction

The Fish Story

by Jennifer Lunden

Image courtesty of the British Library's Photostream

The problem with the fish was every time she looked for it in the bowl, she feared she would find it floating on the top. It was not relaxing at all. She loved the fish, but intermingled with the love was a kind of suspicious reserve.

Margot thought it would be calming to have a fish. She could watch it swimming around, and once a day she could bond with it over food. But the fish didn't eat. She gave it the little pink flakes the guy at the store told her to buy, but it wouldn't eat them. She worried it would starve to death.


She couldn't believe her first lover after her husband left, when she felt ready to watch her passion bloom, would turn out to have such an aversion to passionate sex. "Passion is what got me into trouble," Gideon told her. He meant the heroin.

So when her massage therapist told her a fish would bring a good lover, Margot went right out and bought one. She had been in the relationship with Gideon for a year and a half. She had made do. Now it seemed nothing was left to satisfy her.

The fish was a betta, a dazzling red Siamese fighting fish. His fins were like bright streamers on a wedding getaway car. But the betta couldn't share his life with any other fish, according to the pet store guy. He was genetically programmed to fight to the death.

Margot watched him swimming around his tiny bowl and thought he must be lonely. What was it like to really live in a fish bowl? She named him Louis the Love Fish, but she could never bring herself to call him Louis. Instead, she called him Fishy.

What was it, exactly, drawing her to him, to Gideon Klein, known in the cobblestoned little city of Portland, Maine, as the king of punk? It had something to do with the studded leather jacket, the chains, the dog collar around his neck, and those combat boots. He was a little man, and though she stood 5'8", drawing her, too. She liked them compact. "Easier to park," said her roommate, Pru.

It was not a crush. "I had the hots for him," is what she tells people now. He was the front man in a punk band. And that meant something: he could be his age, 41, and still have the fire in him.

The fairy tale was she had desired him, from a distance, for years. She had seen him walking the streets of Portland in that leather jacket with a little white rat on his shoulder. She had seen him sitting in Tommy's Park with his young punk friends all circled around him. She had seen him striding through the video store where he worked, his hair dyed a flaming red. She had clipped an article about him out of the local paper, kept it pinned to her bulletin board.

That she had married, and divorced, and was in his tub now: that was the fairy tale. She thought of her life up to this moment, her straight and innocent and troubling life, and she marveled at where she had come to be, with him in the other room, combing pink dye into his hair. Gideon's morning toilette, and Margot in her hot bath, steeping.


She never thought she could love a fish, but the instant she carried him out of the pet store, floating carelessly in his little plastic bag, she felt inexorably bonded. And besides, what would it mean if he died? What would her massage therapist have to say about that state of affairs?

One day Margot experimented with playing with the fish. She stuck her finger in the water and was gratified to see he did not dart away but in fact showed some curiosity and then tasted her finger. The motion was sudden and surprising. "Ooh!" she exclaimed. Pru heard her exclamation, and Margot told her what had just transpired.

"What would Freud have to say about that?" Pru queried.

What she wanted was to be thrown up against a wall, surprised the way the fish surprised her—with some movement, sudden and swift and unexpected.


When she was married, she did not know she wanted something more, something else. For her, marriage was like a warm, pungent stable, and her husband, Ethan, was the reliable old horse she put in at night.

All her life she had sought only one gesture, the gesture of being taken in, embraced, held in a man's arms. When she was married, this gesture encompassed her life. She thought, Finally now I am safe. She could retreat to her husband's embrace. She could curl up in him, in his arms, his body curled around her. She could subsume so many other desires as long as she knew she had his presence to hold her in the world.

They lived in the country, she and her husband, in an old house with an attached barn standing home to chickens, ducks, geese, anything with wings. One spring their geese hatched ten goslings. It was a sight to see—how the husband stood watch over his wife as she waited for each gosling to break out of its egg, then tucked each new one under her wing for warmth. The husband stood and waited, stood and waited. The event went on for almost 24 hours, ten eggs hatching, and he stood for all of it, his eyes heavy, closing, then opening again, shifting his weight from one leg to the other.

They were amazed all the eggs hatched. Ten goslings, a large family. In the first weeks two died for no apparent reason—weakness, loss of spirit, perhaps. Margot and Ethan were pretty sure, then, they had come over the hump. But there was a heavy storm, a fall northeaster, cold, windy, wet. The next day another gosling was down. Ethan found it, thought it was dead at first, the way it was laid flat on its side. He brought it into the house and they made up a box for it, wood shavings, water, food. It couldn't stand, no balance, and it couldn't speak, though its beak opened and closed, opened and closed.

For a week they had the gosling in the box, and still it couldn't stand, couldn't speak. They didn't know what to do, how long to wait. It ate and it drank, but there was no way of knowing if the little bird would survive. They didn't know what to do to make it better. They figured they would just have to wait some more, hope it would get better on its own.

When they got married, they knew there was no way to predict their future together. As it was, it seemed they would last forever, but who knows when things are going to change? They knew it was a leap of faith, and they jumped.


Margot studied Shakespeare's plays in college. She read The Taming of the Shrew. Petruchio tamed Katherine, said her professor. Katherine tamed Petruchio.

She and her husband joked about taming. Ethan said, as they sat in front of the TV talking about it, "You tamed me."

Margot rolled her eyes. "You were already tame. And you didn't have to tame me, either."

Later she said, "We are too domesticated. Other people travel. We stay home. We should buy two tickets to Italy."

The TV was still on. Ethan gestured toward it. "There!" he said. "There is our Italy!"

Funny then, isn't it, that later Margot did exactly that: went to Italy. She hadn't been serious really, when she said that, but one day, after Ethan, after Gideon, after Gideon's young successor, almost as simple as this, she just packed up her bags and flew there.


"I have to tell you the story of Gulliver the cat," said Pru. "I named him Gulliver, of course, because of his travels. He belonged to the people next door. You know, at my other place. They were weird people. Seemed like they never left the house. They had an old car seat on the veranda, and they would just sit there looking over at me. They never said hi. But they bred their cats and tried to sell the kittens to the pet store. Gulliver was the Tom. I started seeing him crouched under the bush outside my house. He never went home any more. I tried to pet him, but he'd become wild. He wouldn't let me near him. So I started opening the window and leaving food for him on the windowsill, and one day, finally, he came in. It was a miraculous thing, what happened, magical, like a spell had been lifted. I reached to pet him, and he just melted under my hand. All of the wildness left him in that instant. He became tame!"


She switched to bloodworms—little dried things—on her massage therapist's suggestion, and the fish seemed happy with those. Her friend Rich, who worked once in a pet store, told her Fishy couldn't live on bloodworms alone, that he'd die within four months. The guy at the pet store didn't say anything about that when she went back for them, but then, he wasn't much help on the phone, either, when she called him up to worry aloud about her starving fish.

Rich told her she should only give him the flakes, that eventually he'd give in and end his hunger strike, but Margot was not so sure. Fishy seemed to be a pretty strong-willed fish, if he could endure without food for four days while those pink flakes hovered within easy reach right above him. Margot didn't feel she could afford to take the chance.


She went to Italy because of a boy. He was a boy, really, only twenty-one. A poet. Dark and brilliant and passionate. They shared a fascination with medieval history, he for the primal brutality, she for the stone churches and the religious art. When he dumped her, she suddenly and inexorably needed to go to Italy. And so she did.

It was arduous, traveling alone. She was always lost. The roads in Italy made no sense. Those mule paths she had so much romanticized, she came to see as narrow paths of doom, maze paths leading nowhere but here, here, here. She thought of tying a string to her hostel. She thought of the Minataur.


When she was a girl, her father taught her to worm her own hook.

"You have to learn to do it for yourself," her father said. "It's not fishing if someone else does the unpleasant parts."

She remembers a camping trip when they had no bait. Margot rolled a piece of bread into a little ball and slid it onto her hook. Her father said, "You won't catch anything that way."

She wanted to see for herself. She wanted to reel one in. She dropped the line in the water. Waited for the fish to nibble.