Excepting two horrific incidents involving goldfish that wished for their own demise, I had an idyllic childhood in one of the (surprisingly numerous) parts of New Jersey that could be confused for Kansas. However, these incidents still haunt me — making me question my existence, and what goes on below the surface of fishbowls across the world.
The first episode happened with Harold, the family goldfish, when I was about four. I don’t remember a time before Harold; I believe he was bought as a conciliation prize for my older brother when I was born decidedly female. I’m not entirely sure if Harold even was a boy, or just named as one in order to give my brother a sense of solidarity against the rising tide of femininity in our house.
Needless to say, a goldfish is a poor replacement for a baby brother, and I think Harold always knew he was letting everyone down. These feelings of inadequacy were doubtless compounded by my mother’s daily urgings of “Matty, go feed your fish!” My brother, sighing apathetically, sprinkled fish flakes with a minimum of emotional investment after first removing the Guinness Book Of World Records, 1992 resting atop Harold’s bowl. I assure myself that Matt never intended to instill in Harold the feelings of worthlessness that I believe led to his eventual death. Of course, it might not have been Harold’s crippling lack of self-esteem, but instead his (or her!) gender confusion! What a poor life for a goldfishette, to be forced not only to live as a goldfish but also to shoulder the burden of diminishing masculinity for a young boy.
Either way, the Guinness book was not there to keep our male tabby, Storm (named after the female X-man but much better adjusted) from tasting his fishy nectar. I found this out one afternoon after school. I sat on the desk, watching my brother play Diablo II. For the pleasure of seeing his Level 87 Necromancer decimate zombie shamans with Poison Novas, I had to go feed Harold. Distracted, I forgot to place the book back on top of the bowl. A few minutes later, I cocked my ear to a strange sound. I would later go on to match the sound of a suicidal goldfish flopping around on a Formica table-top exactly to the over-the-top sound of DVD-grade female masturbation, making watching (out of curiosity) girl-on-girl porn completely unbearable.
“F-ck,” my brother sighed. It was possibly the first time I had ever heard the word used, and further strengthened the Harold-porn connection. Later in life, when my knowledge of porn further broadened, I briefly considered that Harold was into auto-erotic asphyxiation and his death was a tragic accident. My brother grabbed a napkin and wrapped it around Harold, until he was dropped back into the bowl, dignity gone and shreds of paper trailing off his fins. I stood absolutely still through the entire ordeal, standing at the doorway of the kitchen and staring at the calendar instead of my brother’s machinations. Harold’s death, ultimately, did not come at his own hand, or fin, but instead at the paw of Storm, who knocked the whole setup — bowl, book, and fish — onto the floor after having ripped open his catnip toy and getting, presumably, wicked munchies.
The second episode happened at a street fair in my town when I was thirteen. It is my long-held and completely un-provable theory that the more people any given location has, the more able it is to modernize, or at least contemporize, itself. In accordance with this theory, my hometown still operates around the late 1950s. Because of this, every year we have a Harvest Fest. This fateful year there was a carnival game going on behind the grist mill that awarded the winners a goldfish in a red Solo cup. After my experience nine years ago with Harold, I was understandably anxious. I chose not to partake in the carnival game, or, for that matter, go anywhere near it. Instead, I ate my funnel cake and considered buying kettle corn.
That is, until I lost my appetite completely by staring at the asphalt beneath my feet. There was a six inch smear of shimmery orange next to my left foot, and it was hardly the only one on closed-off Main Street. Walking in a daze, I saw a new spot of goldfish carnage every foot or so from one end of the Fest to the other, sometimes capped off by intact heads or torn fins. If Harold had been a tragic victim of auto-erotic asphyxiation, then these fish were prime examples of what happens when inopportunely placed orgies go awry. This episode, or as I like to call it, the Great Goldfish Massacre of 2002, ended when I met up with my friend who had been playing the carnival game. I was visibly distressed and she, misguidedly, tried to cheer me up by foisting her red Solo cup at my face. Her fish either was either accidentally flung to its death, or leapt joyfully towards it, and was only barely impeded when it smacked my left cheekbone before landing on the asphalt with the rest of its fallen brethren. Trust me, this has made Solo-cup-strewn college keggers a horrible ordeal for me. I live in fear of fish suddenly appearing in my cup of Natty and begging me to help them end it all.
I screamed, of course. So did my friend. There might have been some arm flailing. But, like shooters in an execution, neither of us ever knew who it was that landed the final blow on the goldfish flopping on the ground. All we knew was that once the dust settled, there was one more orange smear on the ground. I dejectedly walked home, and once I got there, threw out all my gold body glitter and bronze eye shadow while sniffling quietly. The day was only made worse when I saw Storm, crouched on the raffia rug in the foyer, calmly licking the bottoms of my shoes.
That night I made my mother promise me: no more maladjusted, gender befuddled pets, and, certainly, no more f-cking goldfish.