I am a 25-year-old single graduate student, which signifies two things: First, my debt exceeds my income — this is not particularly surprising, as I have no income to speak of — and second, my maternal instinct is so active that when I see an infant drooling, shrieking or, worst of all, smiling, that instinct kicks in so strongly that I want to kidnap and adopt it immediately. But given the first premise, not even Social Services would deign to hand over a child to me, so I have turned to an alternative outlet for my parental urges: pets.
Since I am unable to afford vet fees yet am ethical enough to want to care properly for my pet, I nixed cats and dogs immediately. I briefly considered a parrot, but worried that it would copy some of my more colorful expressions in front of conservative company. I settled on fish. Fish cost 99 cents each. They are easy to care for and double as excellent household decoration. Best of all, when they die, the owner cannot feel guilty. As any 5-year-old can tell you, fish are not long-term investments. There is a reason that there is no market for piscine life insurance.
That’s how I became the proud owner of four tetras, two large and two small. George, Joe, Ned and Alan — named after our president and the Senate candidates from Connecticut — zig-zagged around their new digs and seemed to be adjusting well. I felt proud: Here was my nascent family. For the next three days, I doted on my new charges, sitting in front of the tank and getting to know their quirks and habits. I fed them every morning; I checked on them several times a day.
On Day Three I went to the movies, confident that they were responsible enough to be left on their own without a baby sitter. But upon my return, I discovered that Alan’s tail had been nibbled away by Joe, who had confined the infirm to a corner. For hours, I sat in front of the tank, and when Joe approached Alan to take another bite, I swatted him with the fish-catcher. Unfortunately, my attempts at classical conditioning bred no effects — no doubt because of the limited brain capacity of my subjects.
In the morning, the trauma continued. Alan officially went on disability as fluid built up near the back of his tail-less body, leaving him floating upside down and incapable of eating. This provoked Ned. Though he was about half Joe’s size, the little tetra began chasing the bigger fish around the tank, forcing him to come up with creative avoidance tactics, such as hiding behind George, the other larger fish. But George was not interested in protecting his mate and scurried away. As our household became increasingly dysfunctional, I discovered that raising a family in the 21st century required a great deal more effort than I imagined.
As I sobbed to my mother about my endless failings as a parent, she suggested I return Joe to the store.
“I can’t do that, Mom; he’s my fish. And aside from chewing at Alan’s tail, he hasn’t done much harm. Besides, it would be admitting my failings as a parent. I mean, maybe I shouldn’t have gone to the movie, but…”
“Look,” she interrupted, “you’ve become emotionally involved. It’s a fish. That’s why you can return it.”
Several hours later, Alan breathed his last, and I, in mourning, returned every other fish in the tank to the store. After all, none was totally innocent.
“Gosh, I’m surprised that a tetra did that,” said the blue-haired, gum-chewing cashier. “They’re supposed to be so friendly. But then again, you did have ones of different sizes, and sometimes that makes tetras territorial. Let’s get you some new ones.”
In the end, I purchased a whole new crop of fish, all the same size and so similar in appearance that I cannot tell them apart.
Eventually I stopped blaming myself, because a woman cannot be responsible for the actions of pets that have brains the size of poppy seeds any more than she can be responsible for the activity of the flies that torture her fruit basket. Yet, I still find it remorseful that the only way to keep a peaceful piscine community is either to fill a tank with apathetic creatures or to deprive it of the heterogeneity that make fish intriguing in the first place. So while I’ve moved past the guilt, I cannot help but ask this question: If even fish can’t get along, what hope do we have?
Danielle Tumminio is a 2003 graduate of Yale College and a third-year Yale Divinity School student.