My kid was begging for a guinea pig. Our apartment building does not allow pets; and I was enjoying our fur-free existence after living seven years with a two cats, a dog, and a husband with selective cat-vomit blindness. When we split up, he kept the pets (they were his to begin with), bodily secretions and all. I try really hard when I go over there not to point out the vomit streaks.
I think a guinea pig is too big, I said.
How about a lizard?, she said. Or a snake?
I like reptiles, but my childhood experience suggests they're difficult to keep healthy. Lizards are hard, I said. Snakes have to eat mice.
I had a feeling things weren't going to end up the way I wanted. I steeled myself to consent to a hamster. Could we have a hamster? The cage might kind of smell bad. I was enjoying my house not smelling bad. For once.
How about a fish?, she said. Really? Was I off the hook? A fish?, I said. Well, maybe. Give me the weekend to think about it.
Come Monday, I thought a fish was a pretty good idea. An easy fish. My daughter had already killed off several bettas at her dad's, though I knew they were supposed to be the hardiest. I suggested a nice goldfish. But she wanted another betta.
Well, I am supposed to be a fish expert of sorts. I've been caring for laboratory fish for the past 7 years, since before my daughter was even conceived. I had hopes that I could be successful where my ex-husband had, inexplicably, failed. We went to PetSmart and picked out a nice female (A. prefers simpatica over showy).
I took care over the set-up: a bigger bowl than strictly necessary, with a wide opening. Not one but two plastic cover plants. A stick-on thermometer, since I suspected the string of previous bettas-- tropical creatures-- had perished of chill in my ex's wintry Montana basement apartment. Some further conferring with the salesgirl over the best way to keep the bowl warm when the seasons change (I'm not keeping my apartment 75 degrees in the winter for a fish). A. picked out the brightest multicolor gravel, and of course we needed food, and water conditioner, and a scrub brush, and a little net. I ended up spending about $30-- twice what I would have for the little pre-fab betta kit.
We took our fish home, carefully prepared her bowl, and waited for the water to come to room temperature to avoid shocking her with cold (had my ex- done this?). While the betta sat patiently in the cup, my daughter named her. She looks like she's smiling, she said. How about "Smiler"? I made a noncommittal grunt. A. took note of my lack of enthusiasm. Or what about "Happy"?, she said. I know!: "Feliz!"
Feliz was a perfect name. She's a pretty little fish, pale in front with a pinky-violet iridescence towards the tail, and plum-colored fins. Delicate-looking. After we put her into her bowl, I was sure we'd find her belly-up any moment.
At first, Feliz was shy. She lingered towards the back of the bowl and declined to feed until we'd moved away and didn't seem to be looking at her. But, within a day or two, she began swimming up towards us when she saw us approach. A fast learner for such a little fish; a lot smarter, frankly, than the trout I work with. It was strangely gratifying to get up in the morning and say, "hello, Feliz!," and have her actually come to me. I'm just like a six-year-old. Do you think she likes me?
Now, less than a week later, Feliz perks up when I come home from work. Her bowl is on my desk; if I stop typing and address myself to her, like now, she swims over and looks me in the eye, no doubt to assess my feeding-related intentions. Sorry, Feliz, only twice a day. I am well and truly hooked.
I want Feliz to be happy, and not only because of her name. Plastic plants and a roomy, warm-enough, clean bowl are good, but could I do better? Do fish play?, asked my daughter. I don't think so. Maybe I'll have to track down some live food, and real plants. I remember my freshman English teacher, a friend to this day, who asked the class after reading Hemingway's"Big Two-Hearted River": Are the fish happy in this story?
I want the fish to be happy in this story.