It’s 2:30 and I’m at Linda’s, sitting in her deep gray chair, the one that feels like a bunch of pillows sewn together. The green Buddha statue stares at me from a corner, beneath the mobile of butterflies that never moves even when the sliding door is open and a breeze runs across the oatmeal-colored living room. Some woman whose name I can’t remember reaches into an aquamarine bowl and starts rifling through the writing prompts until she finds one she likes. It’s cheating and clearly an indication that our session should be all about meeting her muse, but, whatever. I don’t mind; I need all the help I can get to pass this giant band of nothingness that stands where my words should be. I don’t care what the prompt is. I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I tell myself. Until the woman says, “Write about a pet.”
I don’t want to talk about my pets. Every time one of my animals dies I blame myself. My daughter says it’s dysfunctional. I say it’s a metaphor, some sort of spirit animal message I’m receiving, sent on a frequency only I can hear.
One of the latest deaths was a few years ago, on one of those California days when the air is cool but the sun burns even in the shade.
“I think something’s wrong with Homer,” my husband said.
He was standing on the uneven cream stone floor in the kitchen in his best British suit and scarlet tie, the gold on his black belt buckle shimmering beneath the too-bright iron and frosted glass kitchen chandelier. On the marble countertop in front of him, between the tarnished candlesticks we’d been given as a wedding gift and the stack of bills I always forgot to open, let alone pay, Homer floated atop the murky water in his tiny glass fish tank, his gills already pulling apart, as though waiting to be sucked into the small tank filter that was plugged into the socket behind the countertop.
Homer, not this spotted corpse but rather, the original speckled fish, was a holdover from our son’s relationship with his college girlfriend. When the girlfriend left L.A. to study in China she asked our son to mind Homer. Which meant that the husband and I inherited Homer, who joined our stable of animals. Quickly Homer became my husband’s favorite pet.
Every time my husband returned from one of his trips abroad, he’d rush into the kitchen and peer into the little fish tank on the counter, eager to watch Homer do a lap. Although most people don’t think a fish in a tank can communicate with the human on the other side of the glass, I swear Homer was different. Each time he sensed my husband watching him, he set off on a tour of the tank, swimming back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. He was an eager little fellow, for about two months. Until the day I found him floating along the surface of the scummy water I’d forgotten to clean. It seemed, from the look of things, that he’d been unable to breathe and, maybe, just maybe, he had drowned in his own filth.
I was horrified. Horrified and embarrassed and desperate to ensure no one would ever discover that my negligence had killed Homer. Especially not my husband. Fortunately, Homer died while my husband was away, which gave me ample time to scoop his little body out of the tank with the net I should have been using to keep the damn thing clean, carry him to the front yard, and bury him under a rock. Pleased and relieved to have removed all evidence of my crime, I knew I needed to make things right again.
I hurried to Petco, where I spent half an hour studying all the fish in the tanks in the back of the store, desperate until I found the one whose size and markings were close to Homer’s. Triumphant, I returned home and made the switch. By the time my husband returned from Paris a week later, Homer II had been a part of the family for so long that I had convinced even myself that it was our original fish doing laps around the tank. True, this new Homer wasn’t as enthusiastic an exerciser as his namesake, but I was pretty certain no one else had noticed the original Homer’s high amount of vigor.
Alas, like the original Homer, this replacement fish was also not destined for a long life. Like his namesake, Homer II turned up dead one morning while my husband was out of town. Once more I whisked a dead Homer from the filthy fish tank, buried him beneath a flowering forsythia, and headed to Petco in search of a new Homer.
And so it went for the next two years. My husband would go away and I would forget to feed Homer or clean the fish tank until one morning I’d wake to find the latest Homer face up on top of the water. I’d scoop up his corpse with my green net, carry him to the yard, and add him to the ever growing mound of Homers buried beneath my shuttered window. Then I’d clear out the tank, ready it for the next Homer, and head to Petco in search of a replacement fish.
“We all wish we’d had a mom like you,” the clerk had told me when I was buying Homer VI, or perhaps it was Homer VII. “It’s so cool that you keep doing this. How old is your kid?”
I watched him tie the knot around the top of Homer’s bag. “Forty-five,” I said. “Homer’s owner is forty-five.”
The clerk’s mouth literally dropped open. I could tell he was horrified I’d been perpetrating this little fraud for years, but I couldn’t help myself.
Replacing Homer was the only act of kindness I seemed able to muster for my husband. I couldn’t stop myself criticizing anything and everything about him, from his clothes, to his car, his glasses, his taste in books, even the way he chewed his food. I could, however, be sure that every time he returned, he came home to a live fish. As long as I could keep a Homer in the tank, I could excuse myself for lacking the courage, and the courtesy, of taking responsibility for the wrongs in my life and my marriage. Despite the deception involved in adding to the ever-growing mound of Homers buried in the back garden, I was able to convince myself that consistently lying to my husband about the fate of his fish was a legitimate way of breathing a faint gasp of air into a relationship in desperate need of resuscitation. It’s what I’d meant to do the day my husband turned up early and unannounced and found Homer, dead, in the fetid fish bowl.
Although I had initially panicked when I discovered the latest fatality, I’d soon relaxed when I realized my husband’s plane from Paris wasn’t due for hours. I would have ample time to clean the fish tank, bury Homer XII, change out of my black knit dress which I knew would be damp with perspiration after I faced the disapproving glare of the Petco clerk, and drop the newest Homer into a pool of clean water before my husband had even cleared customs at LAX. Once more I would be able to carry off Operation Replace Homer. Or so I thought. I’d been about to head out to Petco, I even had the car key in my hand, when I heard a noise in the kitchen. It was my husband, standing in the kitchen, staring at the little speckled body floating in the tank I’d failed to clean.
Although it was still early in the day, time had run out. I could no longer go on pretending that our lives were fine as long as I kept replacing his dead pet fish. I had to tell the truth.
“That’s not Homer.”
My husband didn’t reply.
For a moment I was afraid he hadn’t heard me. But then he reached into the murky water, gently lifted the dead fish, and carried him to the garden. After my husband buried the last Homer, he pitched the fish tank into the cobalt trash can, then rolled it out to the curb. We never had a fish again.
Therese Gilardi is a poet, essayist, and short story writer whose work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including the recently released final issue of Onthebus. Therese is the author of two novels, Matching Wits with Venus and Narvla's Celtic New Year. Therese is a member of the Women's Fiction Writers Association and the Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective, and a PAN member of the Romance Writers of America. After many years in France, Therese now calls a quirky house in the hills above Los Angeles home. Therese's obsessions include blue cameos, train travel and the paintings of Amedeo Modigliani.