Seven Dollar Fifty Life
“Seven dollars fifty.”
“For a fish?”
I bought Bubbles for a short film I was planning to make. The main character in my script had a pet goldfish, so it was an important prop. If you ask me, there’s something quite specific about the type of person that owns a goldfish, something that I didn’t know how to get across any other way. So here I was. Buying a goldfish. I did consider borrowing one from a friend of a friend, but feared I might accidentally kill it. That would make for an awkward conversation. I’m not good at awkward conversations.
In hindsight, it was probably a bad idea from the beginning. But I was 21 and full of that fresh-faced blind optimism you have when you’re at uni and doing a filmmaking course. The world seemed full of possibility. I truly believed that anything could happen if you worked hard enough to achieve it. Harsh reality kicked in a year later when I struggled to find a job in this industry. I digress. It was a fun time being the university bubble, although it didn’t feel like a bubble at the time.
On a breezy Wednesday arvo, I visited the pet store with Karen, the producer for my film. I s’pose we’re an interesting pair; me, a pale white girl with long dark hair and Karen, Chinese with her cropped black bob and checkered shirt. But it works. Karen and I are close but not ‘best’ friends. We don’t like labels. Other than her odd fear of eating alone in public and her unhealthy obsession with hand sanitiser, she’s pretty cool. We both like taking guilty trips through the KFC drive-through late at night, stripy tops (like that girl wears in Breathless) and Haruki Murakami novels. Oh and we both have mothers that are tiny thin and that insist on informing us that we need to lose weight. So we connect on that level — like only girls do. The one thing we don’t see eye to eye on is 500 Days of Summer. I love that film.
The pet shop girl cocked her head and looked at me sideways. “You got a fish tank?”
“Nah. I’ll get one today. With the fish.”
“You can’t do that.”
Apparently you’re supposed to set up your tank for a week before you put the fish in it. Make sure the PH is right. Create the environment. And you can’t put them in a bowl, she said. Bowls curve in at rim. They cut off oxygen. This causes suffocation. They banned them in Japan, you know. You’ve got to get the fancy tank with the automated bubbles. Anything less is animal cruelty.
Karen and I sat in the car, fishless.
“They were mean.”
“They were pretty weird about it. They didn’t trust you — and you have the most trustworthy face of anyone I know.”
I felt like I’d committed a crime or something. Even as I left, the shopgirls suspiciously eyed me from behind the counter, as if matching my face to a criminal from Police 10/7. Considering that an average goldfish retails at about $7.50, I found their hesitancy to sell me one to be inversely proportional to the retail value of their life.
Two days later, I went to another pet store to try my luck. I wasn’t about to have a fishless film. I walked in alone this time, greeted by the scent of dried pet food mixed with that dog smell.
“What kind of tank do I need?”
The girl pointed to a basic tank. The one I wasn’t supposed to get.
She shook her head.
It’s funny how fish know when they’re about to be captured. As soon as the net enters the tank, they move in a flurry — twice as fast as before. Their fluttering bodies make the water ripple in their wake. As if they might magically swim far enough. Eventually they get tired and surrender, giving in to an uncertain future of entrapment.
Finally. I had a fish. Bubbles. Bubbles was a majestic little fish, with feathery fins that had white tips. At first Bubbles would shy away from me, into the shallow depths of the tank. But as time went on, this fish would hover at the rim of its little house and say hello to me. Sometimes Bubbles would even do these weird leaps out of and back into the water. I had to make sure I didn’t fill the tank too high or Bubbles might jump out completely. Was this fish trying to escape?
After I’d put the designated amount of PH drops in, I let the bag float on the water for acclimatisation. Later I released the fish into the bowl, on its lonesome. Bought an aquatic plant and a tiny orange castle that magnified once underwater. And bright blue pebbles for the bottom of the tank, which somehow glowed in broad daylight.
Bubbles appeared a little lethargic, so I returned to the pet shop. They said I should buy a bubblemaker. Once it was set up, Bubbles came to life. That fish loved to race around the tank, round and round. S’pose there wasn’t much else to do.
A week later I travelled Bubbles to my film location, in the passenger seat of my car. The shoot went smoothly. Bubbles did a magnificent performance, whizzing around the tank for us, take after take. Me and my crew sat quietly mesmerized by this little fish as we filmed it, finding the experience of watching very mediative, like taking a yoga class or something.
Not long after, I worked on the shoot for another student in my class. We headed off to Herald Island on this chilly drizzling night to film on a wharf. Wrapped the shoot at two in the morning. I stumbled into my room, damp and numb — desperate for a hot shower. Glanced over to the tank, as per normal, that automatic way you check you’ve locked the door. Only there was no fish in the bowl. Goneburger. I peered within the seaweed in case Bubbles had miraculously managed the art of camouflage. Not there. It was the oddest thing.
A flash of orange caught my eye. There Bubbles was, unmoving on the carpet. Panicked, I picked up the lifeless fish, its slithery body barely possible to grasp. After a couple of flustered attempts, I finally dropped it back in the water.
With no sign of life, Bubbles weirdly glided around the tank, propelled by the force of the automated bubbles. I held my breath as if it would perhaps help the situation. Entranced by the gliding effect and unsure if Bubbles was alive, I stood there in my wet socks, praying that something might happen. Slowly, Bubbles started wriggling, in slow motion, gaining strength. After a few minutes the speed was almost normal. It seemed that Bubbles had come back to life. Scared it wouldn’t last, I watched the tank for 20 minutes more. Just in case.
Karen took a sip of her hot chocolate as we pondered the fish situation.
“I don’t know exactly. I just came home and the fish was on the floor.”
“Wonder how long it had been there for?”
What was Bubbles trying to tell me? Why would a fish jump out of its tank like that?
“Maybe you have a suicidal goldfish.”
“Can fish be suicidal?”
One of the most frustrating things about animals is that they can’t speak. In our language, at least. They can’t tell us things we might need to know. Granted, it would be bizarre if they did. I can see why there are so many films with animals that talk, it would be much easier that way.
Bubbles seemed to be back to normal. Edited my short film, passed my course, finished uni. New year came. Summer arrived. And still Bubbles kept swimming, full of energy.
I was busy, working full time over the holidays in a thankless retail job with early starts and late finishes. Each morning I put on my ruby-rimmed glasses and looked over at Bubbles in the tank before I slumped out of bed. Even without my glasses I could vaguely see that moving blob of orange, reassured that Bubbles was alive and well. On an icy Friday morning I looked over but was greeted with no movement. The orange blob was at the surface.
Put my glasses on and everything came into focus. I stared at it for ages. Staring at death. Dead fish look so small, so insignificant. Just an empty body. A cavity that used to be occupied by Bubbles soul.
I started getting real philosophical — someday it will be over for me. And you. Everyone we know really. What does that mean today? For all of us? If you think about it real hard, you’ll realise that we’re all dying. From the day we’re born we’re dying. When your friend says their aunt is dying from cancer, it’s true. But your friend is dying too. We all are. Just on a different timeline.
So what are you gonna do now you know you’re dying?
Read my watch — I had to go. No time for thinking. Without time to clean up and not being ready to, I thought a note might be helpful.
I know Bubbles is dead. See ya later.
That afternoon, we wrapped it in two paper towels and buried the bundle in a corner of the backyard. Tears fell down my face without me noticing. Mum too. Seems silly to cry over a fish, but somehow that little fish meant something. Come to think of it, was Bubbles a she or a he? I still don’t know. Of course there’s bigger things in the world to cry about and feel sad about, but all I could fathom was that little fish dying alone while I slept 3 feet away under my hummingbird duvet.
I emptied and cleaned the fish bowl, then tossed every piece of fish memorabilia in the back of my wardrobe. It’s not till I moved house a year later than I even remembered I had that stuff. It wound up in the rented skip outside our house. Someone, maybe a little kid, picked up the resealable gladwrap bag with the blue pebbles inside. But the bag must have split — I found a trail of bright blue pebbles on the footpath three doors down when I went for a power walk the day after.
Took weeks to break the habit of looking at the tank every morning. Couldn’t eat fish for the longest time after. And my room was so quiet at night without the bubble machine luring me into sleep. It was like my room had died as well.
Later, I started thinking about what could have caused Bubbles death - after all I’d only had the fish for 4 months. Did I fill the tank too high with water? Perhaps. Or could it have been the pH? Surely not, there were those drops — wait — when did I last use them? I replayed the last time I cleaned the fish bowl in my head. Shit. I killed Bubbles. Suffocation probably. Guess that girl at the Pet store was right.
Justene Musin’s short story was inspired by her goldfish Bubbles. With a background in filmmaking, Justene studied writing and directing at the University of Auckland. She is from Auckland, New Zealand.
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