Last weekend, I won a fish at the county fair. It wasn't a big deal - it was the kind of prize you win from aiming, quite badly actually, a ping pong ball toward a cup full of water. I didn't even try to win. Knowing how bad may aim normally is, I threw the tiny plastic ball with no expectations. Somehow, by whatever forces of gravity and chance, the ball landed inside a cup instead of bouncing off its side, and I was given a ticket that read: 1 free fish.
Winning and Losing Someone’s Heart
I took my fish home in a plastic water-filled bag with air at the top, my friend driving faster than usual over the hills of Pine Plains. She assured me there was no chance it would die before being transferred to a bowl, but I had my reservations. Besides, now I had the responsibility of a life in my hands. I hadn't asked for it, but I had won it, and I took it seriously. It made me begin to wonder if we do that with our spouses. You don't plan on winning a fish, or someone's heart. But then you do, and you're handed a paper that says you're bestowed with this new responsibility – you're a wife, a husband, a trusted keeper of someone's heart and happiness. I had let my marriage die the previous year, and this tiny goldfish was the first living creature I had been asked to care for since. I have to say I didn't have much confidence in myself that I would be able to keep it alive. Still, I had won this tiny life.
On the way home, my friend and I stopped at a pet store to buy the things one needs to take care of a goldfish. We found a bowl, food, a fake plant, and after a few minutes of deliberation, a companion fish. I figured it (it is rather difficult to determine the gender of a goldfish) must want a partner, instead of existing, as the pet store guy quoted, “ just a breathing thing in a bowl.” I guess he had a point. Since I had become single after my divorce, I felt I had more or less been reduced to something of a breathing thing in a bowl, or at least a breathing creature inside a smallish third floor apartment. Sometimes being alone seems so lonely, and so wrong. I instinctually wanted my new fish to have a companion to live its life with; someone of its same species to circle its bowl with and exchange meaningful glances when my oafish human presence passed by.
Woman Before a Fish Bowl by Matisse 1921
Alone in Life, But Not a Lonely Life
But what if I had done my little spritely goldfish a disservice? Maybe he or she was perfectly fine alone, and I had assumed in a big footed way that it needed a companion who for all I knew was completely uncalled for. It is possible to live alone happily. Or so I've heard. As for me, I've felt lonely since my divorce, and I think I might appreciate a companion in my fishbowl on certain lonely nights. On the other hand, I don't know if two is the magic number. I wouldn't trade my nights of snacking on cheeses and sipping wine until midnight for the stability of dinner at eight and bed at eleven. But growing up, I was taught that finding a life partner to marry is what you're supposed to do. It is supposed to make you happier, healthier, better off.
A few days after bringing my two fish home, the small one I had won at the fair died. I guess a companion hadn't been able to prevent what fate had determined. Or maybe the partner I had chosen for my fish was a very bad choice. At any rate, my little orange fish now has the bowl all to itself. I think the lesson my goldfish experience has taught me, is that whether we go through life alone or with someone, we are already who we are without needing to be completed. A life partner is a gift, but not a requirement. When I got divorced, I felt completely lost on my own at first, like a small fish in a big empty sea. But over time, I learned to value myself more as an individual, with all my wants, moods, quirks and habits. Sometimes my apartment feels lonely and I am like the only fish in the sea, and other times I appreciate feeling lost in that abyss. It reminds to appreciate all that life still has to offer me, and it is much more than existing as a breathing thing in a bowl, or a girl inside a third floor apartment. I am one of a kind. And one day, I may just win another fish.
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Lead Image by Artist, Childe Hassam