by Michelle C. Eging
Bernice sits with her fishbowl in her lap, her eyes closed. The Waiting Room smells like wet fur and urine, preventing her from taking deep breaths. She counts to ten and back again, her bouncing leg trying to wake her left buttocks. Two dogs bark at each other. Another whines. Bernice judges from the pain in her right ankle that the whiner broke its leg, probably from chasing a car. The pain searing from forehead to neck comes from the cat two seats over, who had been on the wrong side of a feline brawl.
She sticks her hand in the bowl’s water. Her goldfish rubs its nose against her finger. Bernice woke up three days ago knowing from the numbness in the left side of her face and the stiffness in her left hand that her fish was dying. What she doesn’t understand is why the fish fell ill to begin with and why it’s taking so long to die now.
Bernice hears panting from a few inches away and opens her eyes. One of the dogs sits in front of her, wagging its tail and lolling its tongue. Bernice doesn’t know much about breeds. She can’t remember the last time she ever touched another animal besides her goldfish. Her limp arm presses the fishbowl against her stomach and she slides her free hand to her knee. Her fingertips brush the dog’s whiskers. Its moist breath smells like carrion. The dog’s wet nose smears across her knuckles.
It has been eight months since she last touched another human being: her brother, whom she hugged good-bye before locking the front door. He had whiskers too, that scratched as his wet lips brushed her cheek. He gave her the fish.
A fish she still hasn’t named even though she talks to it every day.
The dog sticks its nose up her skirt. She slams her knees together. Both she and the dog yelp. She pinches the bridge of her nose as her ears begin to ring and her temples throb, wishing the receptionist would let her sit in a separate room, one without bleeding cats and intrusive dogs.
It’s not a poodle, she decides, scowling at the pest as it trips over itself into its owner’s arms. She thinks of 101 Dalmations and the opening montage comparing different dog breeds to their owners’ personalities. She looks at her goldfish, which leans against her finger so it doesn’t have to flap its left fin. What did owning a goldfish mean about her?
“Bernice Polowski,” the nurse says. Her jowls hang to her collarbone and three inches of brown roots betray her dye job.
Bernice stands, smoothing her blouse and skirt and rearranging the muscles in her face so they won’t twitch. She notices she skipped a button on her blouse when she dressed that morning, making it bunch. Is that why the receptionist made her sit in the crowded, smelly Waiting Room? Bernice hobbles towards the door, clutching the fishbowl against her chest with her right hand while her left hangs limply. One of the nurse’s thin eyebrows arches as she takes the fishbowl.
“Follow me,” the nurse says, holding the fishbowl away from her body as if someone had smeared it with STDs. The nurse must have noticed the buttons too.
Bernice doesn’t look back into the Waiting Room. She keeps her gaze on her feet, humming to drown out the whines emanating from the Examination Rooms. Her gait evens with each step away from the pet menagerie. The rake of pain fades from her face. She avoids crashing into anything breakable, and the nurse closes the door to Examination Room 7 behind them.
“What brings you here today?” the nurse says, placing the fishbowl on the Examination Table.
Bernice licks her lips and swallows a few times. The receptionist at the front desk had been the first stranger she’s talked to face to face in three months. The woman had an infected paper-cut on her index finger, spurting pus, no doubt, onto her keyboard. Bernice rubs her fingers against her palm, wondering if the woman would need a shot.
“My fish is dying,” Bernice says. She doesn’t recognize her voice. It belongs to the owner of a mouse, not a goldfish.
The nurse presses her lips together, scribbling on her clipboard. “How long have you had your, ah, pet?”
“Six months.” Bernice places her hands on the bowl and drags it towards her. Yesterday, she called the Pet Store where her brother bought the fish. The manager told her to flush it down the toilet. Bernice presses her eyes shut as water pours into the Examination Room, swirling round and round, catching her in its grasp. Coating her esophagus, filling her lungs…
The nurse touches her arm and Bernice pulls away, her eyes opening. The water is gone, only florescent walls remain.
“Ms. Polowski, what are your fish’s symptoms?”
“Numbness in the left fin,” Bernice answers, running her index finger around the fishbowl’s rim. “I think she had a stroke.”
“You think?” the nurse says, her jowls quivering.
“What else would explain the numbness?” Bernice says.
“Of course,” the nurse says. “Well, the doctor will be in to see you soon.” She hurries towards the door, her shoulders shaking.
“Don’t you need to weigh her?” Bernice says.
The nurse doesn’t reply. She just closes the door.
Bernice wraps her limp arm across her stomach, curling inward. She shouldn’t have come. They were going to turn her in. She wants to go home. Surely she missed something on the Internet. Surely someone has had this problem before and blogged about it or posted a question that a real vet responded to. She just has to keep searching. She picks up her fishbowl to leave.
The door opens. Water sloshes onto her blouse as she halts.
The doctor smells like vinegar, repelling Bernice back several steps. Her right arm hugs her fish to her chest as she swallows.
“Hello, Ms. Polowski,” the doctor says. He’s balding and spit build-up crusts the edges of his lips. He’s wearing a lab coat and Birkenstocks. Even though he’s a foot shorter than she is, her palms begin to sweat.
She nods her head, eyes fixed on the door. She moves the bowl to cover the bunch in her blouse, hoping he hasn’t noticed it yet.
“I hear your fish is dying,” he says.
She nods once more, still swallowing despite her dry mouth.
He glances at the fishbowl. “May I take a look?”
She shakes her head, backing up a few more steps. She wants to go home. She shouldn’t have come. What made her think she’d find answers here that the Internet didn’t have? She should have been more diligent. Should have kept looking. There must be an alternative to drowning. She counts to ten but can’t remember the way back again.
“What breed is it?” he asks.
“Tosakin,” she says.
“Do you know how old he–”
“–she was when you got her?”
Bernice shakes her head. Her right arm relaxes a bit.
“The nurse said you think it’s a stroke. Did your fish begin exhibiting unusual behavior before its symptoms emerged?”
“I don’t know. I woke up three days ago and she was like this. The pain is unbearable.”
The doctor tilts his head to the side. No expression passes across his lips or eyebrows. “Interesting,” he says. “How do you know it was a stroke?”
Bernice nibbles on her bottom lip. A trap. Her right arm resumes its grip on the bowl. She wants to go home. She shouldn’t have come. She needs to leave. Now. The doctor reaches into a cabinet and she backs into the far wall, her bottom lip trembling. She said too much. She shouldn’t have come. She counts to ten but makes it to five before starting over. “I’m not sure how to treat a fish for stroke,” he says, turning around with a small, bright-blue bottle in his hand. “Here’s an antibiotic for fin rot. The instructions are on the label.” He places it in her right hand. “It was a pleasure meeting you Ms. Polowski. I wish you and your fish the best of luck.” The doctor holds open the door and she scurries through, keeping her eyes on her feet. More water sloshes onto her blouse. She zips through the Waiting Room, pain crackling through her side from a big dog’s dislocated hip.
She steps into the fresh air and pauses.
Onetwothreefourfive. Sixseveneight. Nine. Ten–
–the big dog’s agony sheds away—
Tennine. Eightseven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
Her face and arm settle back into their now familiar numbness. Her goldfish looks at her, its nose poking out of the water. She sighs.
The antibiotics won’t work because it was a stroke. The Pet Store manager’s laugh echoes in her head. There has to be an alternative to drowning.
She walks across the parking lot and down the sidewalk, her fingers white against the medicine bottle, the breeze cold against her wet blouse. Bernice has heard of stroke victims surviving, often with permanent neurological damage. Her brother gave her a goldfish because they can’t feel pain for more than a few minutes. Now she’ll spend the next seven to fifteen years with a frozen face and immobile arm.
What if the fish becomes worse?
Bernice trips on the sidewalk, catching herself before she falls. A kid laughs through the open window of a passing van. A dog from the yard beside her barks, tugging against the chain tied around a tree. She pictures the ten blocks she has to walk, six straight and four to the left, and for a moment, she can’t move. She considers leaving the fish on the sidewalk and sprinting to her townhouse. She wouldn’t have to go far to regain use of her left arm and the left half of her face. People would blur past, their troubles glancing off her skin.
She looks down at the fish she still hasn’t named but talks to every day. The fish looks back.
It had been overcast on her walk to the vet, but now the sun shines on her scalp. Bernice hasn’t felt unfiltered sunlight since the day she locked her door. Taking a deep breath, she hugs the fishbowl to her sternum. She can’t abandon a creature that upheld its end of the relationship with perfection—it isn’t the fish’s fault it had a stroke.
She continues walking, this time with a slight limp because her ankle rolled from catching her balance. Who will she talk to when the fish dies? Plants don’t offer the same companionship, they’re too busy sipping sunlight and photosynthesizing to listen. Fish have a small universe. Their existence consists of swimming in circles and forgetting that circle every three-seconds.
Bernice jumps off the sidewalk as a teenage boy in tattered jeans skateboards by. Her heart thumps against her ribs as he jumps and the skateboard flips underneath his feet. The bottle of medicine slips from her fingers, rolling off the curb. He could have crashed, could have busted open his lip or broken a bone. Mindless of the possibilities, he continues forward, leaving a trail of aquatic-smelling cologne behind him. Bernice leaves the medicine where it landed.
With each footstep, she thinks, “There must be an alternative to drowning.”
She almost walks past her townhouse. She lingers on the stoop’s top step for a moment, the door partially open. The sunlight makes the skin on her face tingle. She wants to stretch and suspend in that light, to breathe it in and out. A little girl holding a pink balloon totters by, her Grandmother close behind. Across the street, a boy rides his bicycle, the training wheels still on. For a moment, she loses herself in their elation. For a moment, she forgets why she locked her door eight months ago and never looked beyond it.
The pink balloon slips from the little girl’s fingers as she wobbles and falls. The balloon rises into the air and the girl begins to cry. Bernice turns away before the boy can do something impulsive and wreck his bike. Shaking her head, she enters her home, setting the keys on their hook and locking the door behind her. She looks down at her fish and knows what she must do. She slides to the floor, resting her head against the door.
“At least you’ll have a proper burial,” she says, placing her finger in the water and rubbing the fish’s dorsal fin. Fin rot, what a hoax. Her fish has the most beautiful red fins, curling from its body like smoke.
“Celia,” she says, unsure of why she didn’t think of that name before, wishing she hadn’t thought of it now.
She could put something in the water, like soda or a sleeping pill. She pictures the toxic water slipping through the goldfish’s gills, hitting the heart and brain; pictures it convulsing, its mouth gaping, confused by the water’s betrayal.
No. Poison would take too long.
What if she puts the fish in a blender? That would be quick, the pain minimal as blades puree bone and scales, blood smatters against glass.
Her stomach shoots into her throat and she swallows it down.
She could cut off its head. Her hand goes to her neck as she thinks of the light leaving those black, mysterious eyes, eyes that remember God molding the universe with his hands.
What about the freezer?
Sure, it might feel discomfort at first as the water temperature drops. A slow, euphoric death, as the cold seeps through its scales, arresting its fins and tail before claiming its heart.
Would it feel pain then? Would it stare, confused, into the dark space? That would be no different from leaving Celia on the sidewalk.
There must be an alternative.
“It’s nothing personal,” Bernice whispers. Tears splash into the bowl of water. “Anything is more merciful than living in constant pain. You’ve been a good fish. Always listening. Never complaining. If it weren’t for this mishap, I’d keep you forever.”
She runs her finger across Celia’s dorsal fin. A merciful death means no violence, no mutilation. It means no abandonment. There has to be an alternative to drowning.
Bernice swallows a few times. Her dry tongue traces a stinging circumference around her lips. She counts to ten and back again once, twice, three times. She cups her hand in the water and scoops the fish from the bowl, draining the water between her fingers before placing the fish in her mouth.
The fish wriggles on her tongue, thrashing back and forth, choking on carbon dioxide and saliva. She can feel its lungs expand and contract, its pulse race through its skin. Although Bernice breathes deep through her nostrils, her diaphragm still convulses for air. Her heart ticks behind her nose. Her eyes bulge. Arms shake. Body collapses. Legs kick. The ceiling turns fuzzy, darkening into sepia. Tears snake into her hair.
Hula-hooping in the sun, hair in braids, the backyard green with grass and leaves.
Her tongue cradles the fish against the roof of her mouth. It tastes like fish food. Celia’s florid tail hangs limply against Bernice’s chin.
Droplets of salt water hit her face as sand surges and disintegrates beneath her toes. The smell of sunscreen mingles with that of primordial fluid.
Stubby fingers ripping iridescent wings from dragonflies while she pleads for mercy. Hands shove her against blacktop, skinning open her knees. Blood drips down her legs. Pebbles indent her palms.
Her mother’s white teeth and shiny lips.
Spelling “Appalachian” and winning a blue ribbon.
All goes dark. All goes still.
No tunnel of light greets her. No aquatic god welcomes her into an eternal school of flashing silver.
She awakens, her eyelids heavy, snot dripping from her nose. Her throat hurts as if she’s been screaming. Celia lies limp in her mouth, its body oddly cold, oddly heavy on her tongue. She flexes the corners of her lips. Flaps her left hand. Both move with sluggish dexterity.
She buries the fish in a pot of ivy, kissing its drooping fins before placing it in store-bought dirt.
From her window, she can see a group of girls playing jump rope. The plastic rope hits one of the girls in the mouth.
Bernice closes the blinds.