Fish, Girls, Flight
By Jamie Poissant
The fish tank is meant to be a gift to the girls and turns out to be as much a gift to myself. With its bubbler and gravel and fake plants, the tank is a gurgling, 30-gallon bucket of nostalgia. As a boy, I had a tank of my own, then two, then three. The fish were an endless source of wonder to me, of beauty and surprise.
We start with six fish. My twin daughters pick them out from the crowded PetSmart tanks. A week and two water tests later, we get three more fish. And an African Dwarf frog. The fish are mollies and platys mostly. They’re colorful, and the girls name them after Disney princesses.
Things go well until, one day, walking by the tank, I see that the frog’s leg is caught in the teeth of the aquarium filter. I pull the plug from the wall outlet. The filter shuts off, and the frog swims free. That evening, the same thing happens. I decide that I’ll return the frog to the store the next day. He’s too small for the tank. He’s oblivious of the filter’s suck and hum. I’m not worried about getting back my $2.99, I just don’t want him to die.
In the morning, the frog’s dead. Caught in the filter overnight, unable to reach the surface, he drowned. I unplug the filter, and the frog dislodges. He hangs in the water like a parachutist midair.
My wife distracts the girls in the kitchen while I fish the corpse from the tank.
Later, the girls watch the fish. They count the fish. They comment on them. We feed the fish, and the girls discuss the merits and drawbacks of each of the tank’s residents. Belle is colorful but aggressive. She nips at the others’ fins, unprovoked. Cinderella, a balloon molly, is so fat her swimming looks like underwater waddling.
Then the girls ask about the frog.
“Where is he?” they ask.
“At the store,” I say. “He missed his froggy friends, so we took him back to the store to be with them.” The girls don’t question this.
I feel bad lying to them. They’re three, and I wonder how old they’ll be when we first discuss death. Probably, it won’t be long. Probably they’ll see something on TV or hear things from their friends. They’ll come home with the question, and their mother and I will have to decide how best to talk about it. That day is a day that I dread.
“Let’s have breakfast,” I say. “How about pancakes?”
There follows a clamor for pancakes, and the day lurches forward, death at our backs.
A kite saved my marriage.
What I mean is that a kite is maybe the reason I got married.
We were in college. The woman who would become my wife had been dating me a few months when the guy who’d been her boyfriend for years started calling again. The two had dated through high school and through the early, tumultuous months of freshman year. He’d gone to Georgia Tech. We were at Berry College, two hours away. The long-distance thing hadn’t worked, and I’d swooped in. Or else I’d been in the right place at the right time. The story changes depending on who’s telling it. The point it, he was calling again, and he’d arranged a little visit. I’d arranged to be there when he came.
“We’re just friends,” the woman who would become my wife said, but I wasn’t so sure. I imagined her sizing us up. I imagined her standing the two of us back to back.
“Take off your shirts,” I imagined her saying. “Write a love poem. Dance.” She’d take notes, tally points.
I was the underdog, the upstart, the guy from the chorus line hoping to unseat the lead.
“He’s not trying to win me back or anything,” the woman who would become my wife said. My hopes rose, then detonated when the ex-boyfriend’s black Mazda RX-7 screeched into the parking lot. He hugged the woman who would become my wife for too long.
There was a volleyball court on campus, and the ex-boyfriend suggested we play a game. We found a fourth player and removed our shoes. The ex-boyfriend removed his shirt. He was cut, rectangle pecs and chiseled abs. I was not. He wore Oakley sunglasses. I wore prescription lenses in silver-wire frames.
I was the guy in every romantic comedy, the shy one, the artist, the one who always gets the girl at the end of the movie and never in real life.
The ex-boyfriend beat us in volleyball, then gave us a ride in the Mazda RX-7. The woman who would become my wife, I couldn’t get a read on her. She was being kind to him, but she was kind to everyone. She’s still kind to everyone, which is one of the things I love about her.
There was a lull in the afternoon. I was losing her, I was sure. I wanted to take charge, but I didn’t know how. The day was windy.
“Let’s fly a kite,” I said.
The ex-boyfriend said nothing.
“Come on,” I said, and we drove to Wal-Mart. We bought a cheap paper kite and drove back to campus. We walked to the center of a field, and I let the kite out on its string. It was a good kite, yellow and red, the classic diamond shape with a tasseled tail. It swooped. It shimmied. The woman who would become my wife took the spool from my hands. We took turns making the kite porpoise and dive. I offered the spool to the ex-boyfriend, who shook his head. It was getting late, and he’d been needing to leave anyway.
We walked the ex-boyfriend to his car. He said goodbye without hugging and drove away.
“Did you see that?” the woman who would become my wife asked.
“See what?” I asked.
“His face,” she said. “His face when you said, ‘Let’s fly a kite.’”
“What’s wrong with flying a kite?” I asked. At the time, I hadn’t found it weird. I’d flown kites as a kid. I liked them the way I still liked fish tanks and comic books and chocolate milk.
“That’s just not him at all,” she said. “He wouldn’t be caught dead flying a kite.”
I thought maybe she meant something by this before she said, “That’s why I like you.”
The woman who would become my wife put her arms around me and kissed me, and I saw that I wasn’t going to lose her, not then or ever.
The ex-boyfriend cropped up years later on Facebook, harmless and happily married. I’m happy for him, but happier for me.
I was brought up in a church that taught heaven and hell, so, naturally, as a child, I feared death. It didn’t matter that I was saved, that, when the pastor spoke the words at the end of every sermon, I followed along in my head in case God hadn’t heard the last time, in case the last hundred times hadn’t taken. The wages of sin was death, and the punishment was hell.
Last week, a friend raised the way I was raised told me that, as a boy, he woke ten, twelve times a night and ran to his parents’ bedroom to see whether they’d been raptured, whether he’d been left behind.
Today, my wife tells me about the four-year-old son of a friend who keeps asking about heaven and how to get there, how he can be sure he’ll get past the gates.
And all of this reminds me that I still have nothing to tell my girls. I don’t believe in hell, and I don’t want them to believe in it either. I want to believe in an afterlife, but there are times I just don’t know. We all have our doubts, our fears, and when Death comes, I want to have the right words to send him away.
Now that I’m a parent, my greatest fear is not living long enough to watch my girls grow up. My greatest fear should be their not growing up, but that’s too big a fear to face, so big it’s no fear at all. They’ll grow old, I know it.
And I hope. I hope for something next. This life, if it’s all there is, it isn’t enough. It isn’t nearly enough.
Our girls are young, not quite ready for kites. When they are, my wife and I will take them to fields. We’ll let out their lines. We’ll hold hands. We’ll watch the girls run. We’ll watch their kites dance like fish in the sky.
David James Poissant’s stories appear or are forthcoming in The Atlantic, Playboy, One Story, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, New Stories from the South, and Best New American Voices. He is a winner of the Playboy College Fiction Contest, the George Garrett Fiction Award, the RopeWalk Fiction Chapbook Prize, the Matt Clark Prize, the Alice White Reeves Memorial Award from the National Society of Arts & Letters, and Second and Third Prizes in the Atlantic Monthly Student Writing Contest. He lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida. His first story collection will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2014 followed by a novel in 2015.