He was an eighteenth-birthday present to Nikhil from his old schoolfriend Kathy. Andrew and I had withdrawn discreetly after the cake and candles so that the teenagers could enjoy themselves alone; when we came downstairs the next morning, half a dozen sleeping bags were sardine-packed side-by-side in the den, their teenage inhabitants unlikely to stir for hours to come, while a tropical fish, turquoise with streaks of jet-black, was darting back and forth agitatedly in a tiny bowl perched amid the debris of the party.
Immediately, of course, Andrew and I began emoting—or rather, I did, while Andrew set about finding it a more livable habitat. Poor little thing, I wailed, and thoughtless girl, however well-meaning; couldn’t she have asked permission before giving a living creature as a gift? Nikhil made it crystal-clear that he had no intention of taking it to college with him, so Andrew and I, who had always resisted bringing dogs or cats to live with us because we didn’t want to be tied down, were now to be held in thrall to a fish.
But now that we had it (or rather, him; only the males of his species were so brilliantly appointed) in our care, we had to do right by him, and we did. We found someone in Easthampton selling a fish tank with all accessories, and Andrew went over and picked it up, along with a couple of books on tropical fish. It was Andrew, once again, who read up about how to set up the tank, what kind of fish he was—a Beta, or Siamese fighting fish—and what to feed him. After a couple of false starts—a pet-store plant that turned out to be contaminated and filled the tank with thick green slime, and a period during which we overfed him and the uneaten fish-food particles clouded the water—we settled into a routine and Trouble became part of the household.
I can’t remember who named him. Perhaps it was Kathy herself, a little apologetic about her unasked-for gift, or perhaps it was Nikhil, with a wry nod to the parents who would be taking care of him. For it was Andrew and I who were left with Trouble when Nikhil went off to college. It was a stressful period for me and I found it soothing, almost hypnotic, to sit in front of his tank and watch him swimming to and fro; at times he would get uncharacteristically listless, and I would worry, but when I approached he always perked up and swam to the surface expectantly. When I told Nikhil this he shook his head pityingly, sure that I was going off my rocker now that he had left home and compensating for his absence by projecting my pent-up emotions onto the fish. “His brain is smaller than a pea, Mom; in fact, he doesn’t even have a brain, just a few nerve endings. He can’t possibly know that you are going to feed him.”
But I knew better. Despite his diminutive size, Trouble always managed to look endearingly fierce, rather like Oscar the Grouch of Sesame Street. I was sorry that we couldn’t provide a companion for him, since he was a scrappy little fellow and longed for a mate, I felt sure. We had read that Siamese fighting fish will kill just about any other fish sharing their tank, even a female of their own species, so that if we wanted him to fulfil his biological destiny we would have to get a separate tank along with a female Beta (Why Beta? The very name was dehumanizing), and put them together in Trouble’s tank only for the purpose of mating, watching them like a hawk and then separating them before his killer instinct took over. Ultimately, we found the prospect too daunting, and so Trouble grew to fiery male adulthood alone, and declined into old age alone as well.
Although I knew that goldfish could live for ten, even twenty, years, I didn’t know the life expectancy for a Siamese fighting fish. In the second semester of Nikhil’s first year away at college, Trouble began to slow down. His glossy turquoise scales grew dull, and I fancy that the black ones turned a little grey, along with his whiskers. Instead of shooting up, down, and around, he took to hiding behind a cave-like rock Andrew had thoughtfully placed in his tank to give him shelter and privacy, not emerging even at feeding time. We worried that he might not be getting enough oxygen or that the water had become contaminated again, but try as we might, we could not restore his earlier vitality. The last time I sat in front of his tank, there was nothing to be seen but some creeping slime, a cloud of uneaten food, and a black tail fin sticking out from behind his favorite rock.
The next morning he was gone. Andrew is an early riser, and so it was he who found out that Trouble was no more. Before I had even come downstairs, Andrew had dug a small grave under the birch tree outside our kitchen, and quietly buried him there, with a white rock to mark the spot.
Perhaps it was us whom Kathy really bought that fish for, since her own mother had just gotten herself a large, lively puppy in anticipation of her leaving home, who attacked their guests—Nikhil among them—and was so much trouble that she had eventually had to take him back to the breeder. (The mother of another of Nikhil’s classmates had gotten a donkey.) Trouble was never any trouble at all. We didn’t mean to use him to fill our empty nest; it just happened that way. He couldn’t have had much joy in his short life, but he brought a flash of color into ours at a time when we needed it most.