I sit at the small kitchen table and sip at my coffee, into which she has poured far too much sweetened creamer of a sort she knows I hate. The new realities of our friendship dictate that I drink the shitty almond-sweetened coffee without comment – I’m not sure what has changed in the space between the two of us, but I know the air of our friendship is harder to breathe. Everything is different, and the change has been rapid and dramatic. I do not understand, but I know. I want to ask what the fuck is going on, but the fact that I have been placed in a position in which I have to ask, means, somehow, that I cannot ask.
A single perfect goldfish swims manic circles in a small clear globe of water atop the table.
She is a new addition, this fish, as unfamiliar to me as my friend has suddenly become.
I sit at the small kitchen table with the goldfish, and I sip at my coffee, waiting for my friend to wear herself out.
Her energy is exhausting to behold, as is the list of small accomplishments she wants me to appreciate. She has painted the walls of the living room and rearranged the furniture and hung pictures and cleaned the baseboards and scrubbed the floors and painted the trim in the hallway and changed out the hardware on the cabinets and called to get estimates on some work she wants done in the back yard and she has cleaned out all of the drawers in the house and she has brushed the dog and she bought a new cat-litter tray and also a new shower curtain that has pictures of starfish on it and she has cleaned everything and she has dusted everything and she is working on redecorating the master bedroom and redoing her children’s bedrooms and she bought a new clock and she is listening to a new radio station and she is writing country music songs and she is working out again and she’s organizing a bunch of stuff she no longer needs for a yard sale and she just feels better with the house cleaned of all the grime and she has written a letter to a television star she thinks might want to take her on as an assistant and she is thinking about getting a part-time job or maybe getting her real-estate license or maybe a tattoo and she thinks she has never been happier.
The fish is still swimming in manic circles. I want to smooth a calming fingertip over its rippling panicked fins and whisper words of reassurance, but I dismiss this urge as anthropomorphic projection. The fish abandons its circles and begins to swim tiny spastic laps back and forth across the bottom of its curved world, twisting and kicking at each turn . . . a tiny liquid-gold mermaid on a journey only back to where she’s been . . . endlessly.
My friend is still talking.
I nod my head and speak in short careful bursts of encouragement and accolades and praise.
My coffee tastes like shit.
I want to cry.
I bring my hands together atop the table and gouge my fingernails into my palms, first one hand and then the other, the pain relieving the pressure behind my eyes. She talks from the kitchen about a new cooking show she’s been watching, and how she has been trying new recipes and keeping a more careful eye on her family’s diet and how she is a coupon-cutter now and she has reduced the family’s monthly grocery bill by a third and it’s all about making healthy choices and she can send me some links to the show and the website she’s been using to track the nutritional content of the meals she prepares for her family.
Maybe she has a brain tumor.
I nod my head as I gouge small perfect crescents of containment into my skin, “Yes, that would be great.”
Finally, she sits down across from me, and she places a small plate of cookies on the table.
I pick up a cookie, happy for the distraction of food, and as I take a bite, her eyes light with enthusiasm, “Let me know what you think! I made some tweaks to the recipe.”
The cookie is foul beyond description, but I take another bite and make appreciative noises. I sip at my shitty-sweet coffee as she smacks a decisive palm against the tabletop, “I could sell these. Right? There’s a market for these – healthy and delicious – I could start my own cookie business.”
The fish is swimming in circles again, but it’s swimming weirdly close to the air, so that its top fin breaks the surface of the water and flops dejectedly over a golden side.
There’s no turning back now, and so I nod again.
“You’re not just saying that? They’re good, right?” She looks at me, and for just a flash of an instant, I see doubt and desperation and panic flood her eyes – I have this sudden horrible feeling that she is trapped within herself somehow. I reach into this moment; I literally physically lean into this moment, opening my mouth to call to her, but before I get a word out, her eyes harden and she smiles, “Have another cookie!”
I shake my head, “No thank you.”
She stares past me and talks of an exercise class she has decided to take and how she wants to learn to ski and she is going to be volunteering more regularly at her children’s school and she’s getting up early these days and trying to stick to a schedule and then she talks about her husband and it is as though she is talking about a man I have never met as though all she has ever said about him can be undone and unsaid and unknown with smoothing words of past-erasure and I am left breathless at the gall of her sentences but what is there to say?
Whatever’s different, it’s huge and there is no room for me to breathe within the different.
The fish has tired herself out and is swimming more slowly along the bottom of the watered orb, back and forth across the diameter of its tiny world, her tail pulsing with every turnaround.
She leans to take my hands in hers, and her hands are cold.
Within hers, I gouge crescented harm into my flesh.
Curves of containment.
Within the small fishbowl, the fish tilts and lists to one side and then ascends rudderless through the water as though partnered with an unseen magician. She is a small reclined maiden on a tiny glimmering stage, her golden skirts concealing from view the mechanisms of the illusion. I stare as she breaks the surface and gathers her skirts in a sudden flash of purpose and dives for the bottom, only to have the unseen magician once again demand her languid levitation.
I realize that there is no trick . . . only release from the rules that govern life and deliverance into the rules that govern the transition.
I turn to my friend, “Your fish is dying.”
She frowns and leans forward to stare at the golden fish, “That can’t be. I just got this fish yesterday. I bought it a new bowl. I changed its water this morning. There’s nothing wrong with our tap water.” She flicks an index finger hard against the glass, and the fish makes an attempt to gather its skirts and curtsy, but to no avail.
She rolls and arcs and flops.
My friend and I listen together to the tiny splashed sounds of a thwarted struggle for survival.
And then the silence of surrender as the golden fish dies in a sea of chlorinated atmosphere.
A victim of toxicity.
I stare at my friend . . .
I breathe in the somehow thicker air between the two of us.