“I’ve Kept the Fish Alive” by Jessie Atkin

Image by Cole Rise, used with permission.

I have a fish in a glass jar. She lives beside the bed on a desk with twelve pens, four chapsticks, three books with no pictures, and one baseball card that belongs in the old cigar box next to it. The card isn’t in the cigar box because the jar is sitting on the lid and I have discovered the fish does not like to be moved. It is a very small desk entrusted with holding very many things. It has three drawers, but they are already full and I am not supposed to use them. I think the fish is asleep now. I can tell she’s not dead.

I wish I had a bird or a monkey. I know if I were a pirate I’d want a monkey instead of a parrot. I don’t understand why more people can’t answer that question.

What I want an answer to is why alcoholics are the only ones awarded a special chip when they’re a year out. All I have is the fish who it is my responsibility to keep alive, which I guess might be called ironic.

I’m trying to read Ivanhoe but all I’m managing to do is drink my beer. It’s not an hour for reading or drinking but it’s been a year since my body has treated the nighttime as anything with rules. I wonder why on the page the heart is said to be something so much more fragile than the skin when in life that doesn’t seem at all true.

The tracks beneath my wristwatch illustrate this truth. I drew them to prove I was hurting even if it wasn’t my heart, as everyone supposed. I was supposed to feel something, so I made every effort to make sure I did.

My beer’s warm. It goes down easier that way, but it doesn’t taste any better. The movies say it’s supposed to help, though really Hollywood recommends something stronger.

The knights, in Ivanhoe I mean, seem to get along with wine. I save wine for desperation because it does, sometimes, help me sleep. And I know sleeping is important. And, like hearts, is supposed to be much simpler and more easily understood. But wine is also more expensive.

I can hear the jingling of my gimpy dog in the silence of my parent’s house, all hops and skips with a cast on his back right leg. I’m not the only one awake. He knows where I am, on the pullout in the basement and I want to remind him to stay away from the stairs, but some people are actually asleep and, despite my reminders, neither he nor anyone else seems to listen.

I’m not fully responsible for keeping the dog alive, that’s a shared custody situation with my parents. The fish on the other hand, I don’t know that anyone else even remembers she’s down here with me. Which all sounds exactly like something I would have said at sixteen, and I don’t know if it’s lucky that, this far away from sixteen, I still sound the same and, once again, live in my parents’ house. Stories like this are written for and about teenagers, no one writes them for people like me who are much closer to thirty than we are to high school.

At thirty you’re supposed to be able to handle this. You’re supposed to be able to handle most things. All those young adult novels were supposed to prepare you. But there are only so many situations you can prepare for and none of them are targeted at alleviating particularly poor brain chemistry. That’s what the meds are for, to make any preparation remotely possible.

But everything that was possible then isn’t possible now. Marriage, kids, milestones. All I can accomplish now is feeding the fish, getting out of bed, and not cutting. That’s the point. That’s all anyone’s asked of me in awhile. And it’s still been hard. But those aren’t the sort of accomplishments you Instagram about or talk up at a reunion. Apparently they’re not even the sorts of accomplishments they give chips for.

There’s no graduation, or cards with checks enclosed. There’s no cake or even celebratory phone calls. Maybe I’m the only one who remembers the date. And just like the act itself I have to do this on my own, celebrate and congratulate myself with a drink and a pat on the back. And maybe part of being closer to thirty than sixteen is being okay with celebrating yourself by yourself.

I hear a burble and know the fish is awake. It’s impossible to have a regular sleep schedule when you live in the basement and only get light when someone feels like reading or lying awake. She blows bubbles at the surface of her jar sometimes. The Internet says this means she’s happy and basically marking her territory.

“Hey,” I say. “You awake? You happy?”

Her fin flutters.

“L3,” I say. Named her after a Star Wars droid. It seemed appropriate for a fish. Part of this world but part of its own world too.

She blows another bubble and then swims in a circle.

“Are you bored?”

She shakes her head.

“You could live outside the jar for a little while as long as you stayed wet.”

“But it wouldn’t be very comfortable.”

That’s probably true. She’s just alive, and she’s cool with it. She doesn’t like to move so I make sure she doesn’t have to. She’s even cool with the insomnia. But I guess the fish doesn’t have to get up for work in the morning.

Which I do now. And always did. Never expected a special lunch or anything at the office because I never told anyone there. Never gave them a reason to suspect. Because, like AA, this is supposed to be anonymous. You don’t get a branded sweatshirt or framed photo for surviving. You just do. But here you don’t get a sponsor or a mentor either. I’m trying to decide if I care. Maybe I’m making this all into a bigger thing than it is, now. It was big then, but not now. So why celebrate something small? I guess I should ask everyone at AA. But I don’t go to AA. I don’t have a problem that is quite that defined. I mean, it’s defined. It comes with a name, and doctors, and prescriptions, but no one has ever celebrated it as a group activity. I’m no hero. So I guess that’s why we don’t celebrate. But I guess there are heroes in this story too. Which is why, while reading Ivanhoe and drinking, unlike L3, I will get up in the morning. Because there’s a little boy in my class. He’s four years old and both of our favorite color is green, which is how I always know where he will sit on the carpet with the star in the center and the letters around the edge. The S is the green we both like.

And I can’t imagine being four and having my teacher kill herself, or at least die as I’m sure they’d spare my class any gory details, as well as the gory falsehoods, like it was a broken heart that did it. And he would probably only ever remember how he felt rather than what happened. He’d remember where he was sitting when he found out, on that green S that is both of our favorite color. He would understand I wasn’t coming back probably because I drew a picture of Batman for him last week, who we both also love, and he wouldn’t be able to love Batman anymore. And maybe he loves me as much as he loves Batman. Which is why I keep getting up. And why I keep L3 alive.

And it has been a year after all. A year of living with my parents, and drinking through my insomnia, though Ivanhoe is new. And it has also been a year of someone who is happy to see me everyday, even though he’s four, and not at all what the movies train you to expect. And that has to be okay too. Because there are no stories about me. There are no stories where you try to kill yourself in your twenties, and you don’t, and there’s no institutionalization, just changing your meds and moving in with your parents. There’s no story where you attempt suicide not because your heart is broken but because you think you don’t even have one to break. There’s no action or heroes or villains really. There’s no group therapy, or sobriety chips. There’s just me keeping the fish alive, because who else can? And maybe this is the story no one else has written, even though I know this has happened before. And will happen again. Though not exactly like this.

There are no calls, or cards, or presents, or parties. But tomorrow morning I’ll get up with bags under my eyes and walk into work and get a hug.

There’s a knock on my door. I freeze and hear L3 burble. I can feel my heart in my throat and my wrists and I know my new anxiety is still more pronounced than the depression of three hundred and sixty five days ago. I strain to hear if it’s the dog or someone else. What’s out there now? At this time? What’s supposed to be?


Jessie Atkin writes fiction, poetry, essays, and plays. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The YA Review Network, Writers Resist, Cloudbank, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from American University. She can be found online at jessieatkin.com

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