Lives of Tropical Fish

The thing about aquariums is they depress me. The prettier and brighter the fish, the deeper my despair. Look, it’s not like they’re getting out of there, and it’s not like these fish are going to ever actually do something with their lives, you know? Honestly, you wouldn’t be going too far to call someone a monster for supporting that kind of confinement. My ex, Ray, was one of these chumps. Back then, I saw him as a stepping stone. I thought each new man would treat me better than the last, so I moved on to Frank.

It was a hot day in mid-October, already fall, when I took a free test at Planned Parenthood. Twenty minutes later, a nurse came back and said it was positive. On the way back to my dorm, I turned left onto 501 instead of right, then pulled into the  AutoZone parking lot where Frank worked. I found him out back on a smoke break. 

“Listen,” I said. “I’ve got some news.” 

When I told him, he sucked on his cigarette, the long ash on its end falling away, revealing the tiniest of embers underneath. Then there was the slow exhale of his smoke consuming me.

I keep thinking about probabilities and likelihoods, how I ended up in South Carolina, how Frank just happened to be at the Coop that night. And what about that sunny day in October, the dumpster behind us smelling of old ice cream, burnt engine oil, and something dead, and my terrible eyesight. I’ve had glasses since I was five, can’t see shit without them. But I could see into Frank, every muscle twitch and tighten against me, even that ember that shouldn’t have been visible in the sun—it was glowing so very bright—as if the gloom I brought with me was a darkening force that required a call to arms. There was this problem, see, and somehow I was the cause of it, and because of that, my eyes ached and I longed for a dark room to rest them in.

And you know what? Maybe I missed the soft glow of blue from the corner, the sound of trickling water, a constant drip, drip, drip—God, I hated that sound, mixed in with Ray’s heavy snoring brought on by his allergies. But the plants weren’t so bad, the water clover and tall grass waving. It’s impossible to be still in there, everything’s moving all the time, and maybe I could breathe underwater, you know, be one of those neon tetras, shimmering teal and red. Maybe if I were trapped by glass, I’d be able to see past the smoke and sun, and there’d be something in your face that speaks of love.

Amber Wheeler Bacon is a writer and teacher whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Ecotone, Epiphany, Five Points, Prairie Schooner, and Witness. You can find her writing online at Ploughshares and CRAFT. She received the 2022 Lit/South Award for flash fiction, and she’s currently a finalist for the Chautauqua Janus Prize, nominated by Ecotone. Amber has an MFA from Bennington College and lives by the beach in South Carolina.