Last Sunday, my fish Matisse began thrashing wildly in his bowl. From my perch on the couch, I saw the movement out of the corner of my eye, recognized it as abnormal, and rushed over. Immediately, he flipped over as only dead fish can do … then miraculously flipped back over and started swimming again.
This happened several times within the span of 10 minutes. Each time he began to make the journey from right-side-up to upside-down, I sobbed, kneeling on the floor, my roommate beside me watching in almost disgusted fascination as Matisse died and was reborn. Died and was reborn again.
Eventually, we turned off the lights and left Matisse to make the choice.
“You’re a wonderful fish,” I told him. “But if you have to die, die! Don’t hang around just because I’d miss you. A lot. Do what you have to do.”
That night I lay in bed trying to sleep, my mind with the bowl on the kitchen counter that was Matisse’s home. I thought about what I would do if he did die. (Flush him? Too casual a funeral for my beloved fish. Bury him? Too fancy. Leave him in the bowl and pretend he’s not dead? Too weird.)
I thought about why he had chosen this particular night to die, why he was dying in the first place. He was only ten months old! How long had it been since I cleaned his water? I hadn’t been around much lately — was he lonely? Had I forgotten to feed him?
I thought about all the good times, and then I thought: when did I get so dependent on this fish?
Matisse was a Christmas present. Only he wasn’t Matisse then, just an orange beta fish with blue markings on his tail. My brother Scott had gone to Delaware to pick up my grandmother, and when they returned on December 23, they had the fish in tow.
I admit to not being too impressed at first — I mean, the only fish I had any real connection to in my life had all gone belly-up long before my junior high years.
Fish aren’t real pets. Fish aren’t the cuddliest of creatures. They’re nothing like dogs and guinea pigs and salamanders, all of which you can pet. And, honestly, I’ve never been the best owner, either. I can love with no problem, but feed? Daily? Doubtful.
But that Christmas, I was at a strange point in my life. I was heading into my last semester of college, having just completed three months of student teaching, wary of longtime friends, too trusting of new ones, a beginning, an ending — all of which gave me a feeling of displacement that was compounded when I was forced to give up my bedroom to my grandmother for the holidays.
I was unhappy, I was lonely, and a fish wasn’t going to help.
There is no unconditional love with fish. They just swim around until the day they eat too much fish food or drink too much unfiltered water or get so tired of swimming that they decide to check out the stars and flip belly-up out of boredom.
Matisse was different. I think now it started with his name. “I guess ‘Fish’ isn’t going to cut it,” I said to Scott when he asked what I was going to call the thing.
“Think of something meaningful,” he suggested. “I don’t know — something you’ll remember.”
There was a reproduction of Henri Matisse’s “Jazz” on my wall: a blue figure on its toes surrounded by stars, a red heart in its chest. I looked up at it and said, “Matisse.”
“Oh.” Scott was silent for a moment. “Why not Vermeer? Or Whistler?”
I looked at the poster again, then at the orange fish swimming lazily on my desk. “No,” I said. “I like Matisse.”
I took to saying “hi” to him every time I entered the room. I fed him bloodworms, a pinchful, every night for the first few weeks, until it seemed his water was getting cloudy and yellow, at which point I switched to Beta Bites on the clerk at Petsmart’s recommendation.
By the time I went back to school in January, the fish had become “Matisse, my sweet,” and I packed his fragile bowl in a box between the sturdiest books I could find in order to get him through the two-hour car ride. He wasn’t the happiest thing in fins when we finally got there, but a perch in front of the window cheered him up considerably. He was soon sailing again in the sunlight.
I learned some new things about Matisse during the five months we shared my dorm room. He would tap on his bowl, tinny taps, usually around six o’clock, which is when I fed him every night.
He slept for a couple hours in the afternoon and in the very early morning — if fish sleep. (He may have been thinking.) If I spoke to him directly, he would swim up to face me and puff his gills.
I was reluctant to leave him by himself, so when I went out of town for the weekend, even for the night, I enlisted the help of one of my friends to watch, feed, and entertain him. I’d carry his bowl over, Beta Bites in my coat pocket, Matisse tapping furiously when I jostled him too hard.
And I’d leave a list of dos and don’ts. “Talk to him,” I’d say, “and feed him at six. But if you accidentally spill some of his water, don’t fill up the bowl with tap water! He can only exist in spring water. And if you start thinking maybe he needs another fish in the bowl with him, forget it! They’d kill each other!”
Over spring break, Matisse traveled with me from school to home to my grandmother’s house to a friend’s house in Lewes. A lot of car trips and a lot of frayed nerves, but worth it to know he wasn’t starving in my dorm room.
In Lewes, I set him on a table by the door. I had my picture taken with him the day we left; I’m smiling at him, he’s looking at me through the clear water, and the sun is behind us.
My friends have made fun of me for this odd devotion to a fish, and maybe I deserved it. But every time I worked in my room, writing some paper or reading the next assignment, wondering what the heck I was going to do with my life, and beginning to feel isolated, Matisse would start tapping. It sounded like pennies on glass, but it was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone.
Then I graduated and went back home and tried to sort out the whole working world deal. Matisse had a shelf, but my room at home wasn’t very well-lit. I forgot about him sometimes, in the haze of paychecks and resumes. When I moved out, Matisse came, too. He rode in the moving van in my brother’s lap. He was not happy, but a spot on the counter in my new apartment pacified him.
I got caught up in moving, in work, in more work, in stress from work … and so on. Sometimes I forgot to feed him. I put off cleaning the bowl. I didn’t greet him any more.
I told myself: Look, you’re a grown-up and he’s a fish. I figured it was about time I realized that.
When I went to bed last Sunday, I thought he was dying. And I cried myself to sleep.
When I woke up Monday, it was like the thrashing and the flipping had never happened. Matisse was floating right-side-up, propelling himself with his fins every so often. He didn’t look sick. He just looked — well, like a fish.
“Good morning, Matisse,” I said.
He paused a moment in his bowl, then turned to look at me.
“Thanks for hanging around,” I said, “Matisse, my sweet.”