Finn Almost Buys a Goldfish – Chris Cooper
July 14, 2020
Finn had read in a Lifestyle Magazine that the best way to heal a broken heart is with a pet, so he’s been trying to figure out what kind of pet to get. Fostering a dog demands a lot of attention and potty training, and he’s allergic to cats, so caring for a kitten is not a viable option. Finn doesn’t want anything that can possibly antagonize him either, so just in case he ever starts trying to microdose with LSD, he wants to make sure whatever he’s going to own isn’t going to provoke him when he’s peaking. There was this kid Finn used to smoke weed with who killed his sister’s cat by eating a bunch of Quaaludes like jelly beans before falling asleep on top of it; the kitten’s breath extinguished with every toss and turn as Faith became a fluffy throw pillow.
But Finn really doesn’t want blood on his hands, so he thinks a goldfish is a good idea because it’s easiest. He starts researching right away, staying up late, reading Google articles and all, clicking through pictures of fish. He learns all about them, like how their gills extract oxygen from the water so they can breathe, and most fish can swim up to 43 miles per hour. He finds himself fascinated all hours of the night, scrolling through videos and such, and it’s a rarity if Finn does sleep, and when he does, he wakes up super panicked. He’s been having that dream again and not the one where his teeth are falling out and he’s trying to salvage them as they drop, holding out his hands to catch each tooth. No, it’s that other dream he has every few months, but now he’s having it regularly. It’s the one when he’s back in college, and he’s forgetting something; it’s either a class he’s missed, or it’s an assignment he’s totally neglected that’s going to cause him to fail the semester. He’ll have to call his parents and tell them, and he’ll be destined to live in his parents’ basement for the rest of his life. Anxiety attacks Finn routinely, even when he’s sleeping.
But Finn wakes up happy today because of a different dream he had last night. He’s excited and eager for the day to start, actually. Bouncing out of bed in the morning and hurrying to get dressed, Finn smiles as he recalls being visited by a friendly goldfish while he snoozed. Puffing and pivoting in the translucent water, a funny, droopy head emerged; its ballooned body jounced back and forth as its bloated face stared at Finn with a sort of silly intensity. Finn knew he was dreaming and that the goldfish wasn’t really enthused; it couldn’t help it. As a matter of fact, its persistent, constant swimming was a sign of good health, according to what Finn had read. Finn is thrilled, really, because it’s been awhile since he woke up optimistic, and one of his therapists once told him dreams are manifestations of the subconscious, so he knows a goldfish is probably what he needs.
Finn is going to name his goldfish Mikey after a friend he had in college. Mikey wanted to be a comedian; he did standup around campus. He was a funny dude, like spit beer out of your mouth funny, like laugh your lungs out until your insides fucking hurt, and you’re not sure if it’s the Salvia making you cry, or he’s just the funniest curly-haired purple monster you’ve ever saw. But Mikey definitely wasn’t ever a monster; he was kind and courteous, and he was someone Finn remembered fondly even though they haven’t spoken in over a decade, ever since Finn got coked up one night at a party and knocked out his friend who was visiting him from back home.
“There’s no rollbacks, that’s house rules,” Finn shouted over the beer pong table, wiping away the wintry residue from his nose. Carter snatched the ping pong ball that ricocheted off the red solo cup. Winding his arm steadily behind his back, Calvin crouched down to align the trick shot with his target, closing one eye as if he were a sharp shooter.
“Well, I make my own rules,” Cooper said, or maybe his name was Chet, Finn can’t recall. But it doesn’t matter because Finn told him several times that there were no fucking roll backs, and before Carson could even release the dirty ping pong ball from behind his back, Finn sent a masochistic headbutt into his forehead. Last Finn saw, Mikey had unfriended him on Facebook.
So, Finn is excited to make a new friend; a fish friend. He’d like to make a new anthropoid friend, like one that’s capable of interaction, reciprocal communication and doesn’t live in a 30-gallon fish tank. Yeah, Finn could really use someone to talk to these days, but a goldfish will do. He’s really going to do it too, buy a goldfish. He’s got his day all planned out, and he’s even going to the store to purchase one and all, a fish tank too, because it’s a misconception that goldfish can live in a bowl since it really can’t be filtered, doesn’t provide enough space for dissolved oxygen, and goldfish grow to the size of a softball at maturity, and he won’t participate in such oppression. He’s going to make sure he buys from a Mom & Pop, Brick & Mortar store and not an evil tyrannical capitalist conglomerate like Pet Smart. A friend of Finn’s shared a post which was shared by someone Finn’s friend went to the gym with, which was shared from a Twitter account with a big following and a blue checkmark and all, about how big corporations like Pet Smart were literally running concentration camps with fish and contributing to climate change, so Finn knows he has to buy local. He doesn’t care that it’s going to cost him 5 times the amount of a typical goldfish, he’s going to pay whatever the price, and then he’s going to make a post about it and share it to his Instagram. He’ll add appropriate hashtags like #savetheworld #bethechangeyouwanttosee, and #fishlivesmatter and conjure up some quote from Gandhi to incorporate. He anticipates getting at least 50 likes, and this temporary validation will be just enough, for a few days.
Before Finn ventures into Franny’s Fish store, he cups his hands around his eyes, pressing them against the front window to see if it’s still open. A vintage “We’re open” sign dangles from the doorknob, red rusted letters embossed on a flimsy license plate background. Most out-of-business Brick & Mortar stores around town still had their open signs on display even after being closed for months, so Finn figures he’d double check. Before he checks to see if the door is locked, he imagines peering through the window and seeing a vibrant mug staring back at him, blowing bubbles with an oversized mouth, flourishing little fish fins, waving at Finn to come get him.
And then a heartwarming little old lady with thick-set eyeglasses will hold the door open just enough to welcome Finn with a smile, ushering him inside the store with an affectionate cadence, offering him homemade cookies. For some reason, she’d be wearing a festive apron with lace trim, and she’d tell Finn he looks like her grandson or something that makes him feel extra special. Her ringlet gray hair taut against her head; her beaded glass chain jingling as she dawdles, holding her hands together as if she’s in a constant state of prayer. Finn envisions she’d kinda look like his grandmother MiMi, and he’d want to give her a hug, and then she’d tell him all about goldfish. But Finn will know she isn’t really his grandmother because MiMi has been dead for 7 years, and his mother still cries every year on her birthday.
Approaching Franny’s front door, no one comes out to greet him, and he has to finagle the ancient door, finessing the knob with a firm squeeze, steady turn, and push. It lets out a long aspirated creak, releasing its last of remaining breaths. Stepping inside, Finn turns back to ensure the door closes behind him because people that don’t close doors behind them after entering are inconsiderate and missed opportunities at abortions, just like people who don’t return their shopping carts from the parking lot.
Finn catches the dust dancing in the sunlight as he enters the store; the warmth from the heated fish tanks permeates, crawling up Finn’s sleeves. Franny’s is empty and musty; undertones of bleach saturate the air as fluorescent lights buzz in the background. Chirps and squeaks capture his attention because they aren’t the conventional sounds Finn recalls fish making. He turns to see a bunny rabbit hopping back and forth in a clear bin full of hay. Perking its head up, the bunny flares its nostrils and stares, frozen as it studies Finn. With whiskers flinching, the rabbit’s two front teeth peek out, resembling a Bugs bunny grin, and Finn wonders if he’ll eat a carrot, reinforcing every stereotype he’s ever associated with rabbits. Finn shuns the inquisitive fluff ball and moseys further into the store, paying little attention to the shrilling colorful parakeets; he wonders why the store is called Franny’s Fish Store if they also sell mammals. The stale carpet sinks and grips to the bottom of Finn’s shoes after each step as if it has been soaked for years; like Elmer’s glue, pulling at his shoe after every stride. He imagines there once was a calamitous fish escape that had flooded the shop. A few years back, he believes, there was a bold goldfish that led a rebellion. His name was Cornelius, and he had a dark microscopic fishbone tattooed on his forehead, which he self-inflicted during his time spent in solitary confinement in fish prison. Cornelius had a tough upbringing, so naturally leading a revolution was his destiny. He had rallied up all the other fish, instilling a will to finally be free.
“There’s a whole other world outside of these fish tanks,” he proselytized, clenching his fins with fervency.
Of course, his words echoed through each tank in a high frequency, just how dolphins vocalize, so every fish could hear his empowering monologues. Unwittingly, the plan of having all the fish form into collective units, swim back and forth like pendulums, using their momentum to push the tanks over, spilling all the fish onto the floor was a suicide mission. It was an honest mistake, Finn thinks. There’s just no way Cornelius could have known they couldn’t breathe outside of water, it’s not like they had access to Google. And some say you can still hear the thunderous crash of the tanks smashing onto the floor at midnight, every night; the glass bursting as thousands of fish flopped onto the floor, flapping to their deaths. Generations of fish met their demise on the crusted canvas; but what matters is that Cornelius’ heart was in the right place. But that’s all speculation, pure conjecture influenced by the 2 hash oil edibles Finn had for breakfast.
Finn hops forward, making eye contact with an androgynous store worker. His name tag reads “Brandon”
“Excuse me Sir, can you help me?”
Brandon’s eyes widen as he perks up, unsettled.
“How dare you assume my gender,” Brandon whistles, placing his hands on his hips like an angry teapot. Finn feels anachronistic, like he usually does, but mostly now because growing up he was taught to always greet others with courtesy, using “sir” and “mam” as honorific addresses, so Brandon’s hostility is confusing. Finn’s also never met anyone with the name Brandon before that wasn’t a Sir, which is why he assumes it’s acceptable to consider Brandon a He, but he’s learning that’s just his innate misogyny. Finn decides he’s going to do his best to avoid any future scenarios where he has to invoke pronouns.
“It’s offensive,” Brandon declares and pontificates about patriarchy and male privilege, and Finn starts to get real depressed because he just wants a goldfish.
The teapot boils and hisses, and Finn starts becoming real aware of his own heartbeat, its constant thumping in his chest; its weightiness with each strike, its impact with each beat, and it beats like a heavy fucking sledgehammer, and Finn thinks he’s feeling pain along with each manic flutter, but he’s not entirely sure. Sure enough, waves of pressure constrict his ribcage, and Finn’s pretty sure he’s having a hard time breathing and Brandon is nothing like the teapot character from Beauty & the Beast.
“Cash register, display case, metallic shelves,” Finn whispers to himself. His old therapist recommended he try naming everything in his surroundings when he felt an oncoming panic attack; a distraction is what he needed, and it used to cost him $180 an hour, but now he’s free to find his own distractions. Brandon wraps up his soliloquy, and Finn can’t remember whether Brandon wants to be called Cornelius or Ze, but he’s almost positive he’s going to have a heart attack and die and then perhaps Brandon will be at peace.
“I’m sorry, I’m just looking for a goldfish,” Finn shutters.
Brandon huffs, “Well, we have all types of fish. Are you sure you want just a goldfish?”
Brandon’s question catches Finn off guard because besides his recent dream, he doesn’t really know why he’s fixated on a particular type of fish. Maybe it’s because he read that goldfish have extremely short attention spans, and their brains are missing the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus, which stores explicit memory and enables conscious recognition. Or perhaps it’s because their tanks need to be cleaned regularly and often because of the abundance of ammonia they produce, and Finn knows what it’s like being toxic to yourself; he’s fucked up everything that was ever good in his life.
Perhaps he’d even consider something else besides a goldfish, but definitely not a rabbit because then he’d feel like it’s always Easter and that’s just around the time that his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and also, he’s seen too many dead bunnies with their guts pouring out on the side of highways.
Finn doesn’t really know a whole lot about fish. His older brother used to have fish when they were teenagers. They were bettas; blubbery and black, and Finn remembers vividly watching them fight other betta fish. Brett would burst into Finn’s bedroom with a new betta and a devilish smirk after school; a master marveling at his new prized fighter.
“Come with me,” he commanded, cackling as he carried the fish back to his room.
They’d watch like Roman royalty, fixated on the two fish darting, diving, and digging at each other like gladiators. He probably could call Brett and ask him about fish, or maybe text him, but Finn knows he isn’t going to answer anyway. They haven’t talked in years since Brett got married and moved away, and Finn told him he didn’t think his wife was good for him.
“Which would you recommend? I’ve never really owned a fish before.”
The cheap corduroy vest Brandon is wearing features a Franny’s Fish logo by the right breast; a captain’s wheel with an archetypal fish head in the center. Finn can’t stop staring at it because it’s fucking stupid and distracting. The fish is animated and dead-looking with glossy eyes and draped jowls, which makes Finn’s stomach turn and his heart thud as he remembers that he too, is going to die someday.
“Freshwater or salt?”
Freshwater sounds better for the environment, so Finn says, “Freshwater sounds good.”
“Ok,” Brandon nods, rubbing his hands together as his wristbands clink. Finn imagines sparks flickering as ideas ignite, thought-bubbles bursting overhead as Brandon decides on a recommendation.
They saunter over to the back wall, which is lined with a collection of fish tanks, alluring aquariums featuring an array of finny tribes. Exuberant colors dash through the superficial blue waters as they approach. Finn’s head oscillates as he tries to catch any fish making immediate eye contact.
“So, you have your Bettas, Gouramis, Barbs, and goldfish. Those super pretty fish that you see in those colorful fish tanks won’t live for very long,” Brandon announces, kicking back a head of coiffed hair, shaking it off to the side; a habitual quirk that renders Brandon a sentient bobble head. Brandon’s Chuck Taylors step forward as he taps on the glass with the knuckle of his folded finger. The fish scatter from the intrusive pecking, ducking behind the tank decorations, burying beneath the sand pebbles, and sinking beside the pirate treasure. A deep sadness fills Finn’s insides at the sight of the fleeing fish because people are always pattering and pestering, and there’s never enough aquatic knickknacks to hide behind.
“Goldfish can live up to 15 plus years. So, I guess you should first decide on how much of a commitment you’re looking for.”
Finn’s ex-fiancée told him he was incapable of being in a committed relationship right before she moved out, so this would really show her, Finn thinks. But he doubts she’d ever find out since she’s blocked him on all social media platforms. He once told her the thought of someday having to watch and record his kid’s 2nd grade holiday choir and share it on Facebook made him want to vomit and possibly step into oncoming traffic.
“Let’s look at the goldfish,” Finn smiles.
They proceed down the aisle that leads to the nefarious fluorescent light; its humming becoming more discernible with each step. Finn decides that if he can’t find one that reminds him of Mikey, then he’s going to name the goldfish Dave, after Dave Matthew’s Band. He thinks this is a great name because the last time he felt alive was at the Dave Matthew’s Band concert in 2010 with his college girlfriend Deidre. They had tripped on magic mushrooms and became two plasters of clay, molded together; their limbs linked the entire night; their bodies glued in the grassy fields; the heat from their chests harnessing a cosmic warmth, transcending every touch and kiss into an orgasmic occurrence; the bass guitar reverberating in his neck, the drum beats echoing into the clear summer sky. Finn remembers her telling him, “You’ll never not be a part of my life.” He’d discover online almost 10 years later that she went on to marry a bankruptcy attorney and become a physical therapist in Seattle.
“Well, here’s our goldfish tank,” Brandon sighs like he’s got shitty WiFi and he’s agitated by the constant buffering of a YouTube video he’s trying to watch.
Crouching to lure in an onlooker, Finn smiles eagerly at the glass like he’s on a job interview, and he’s really trying to put his best foot forward and make a good impression. Most of the orange hues hurry away, except for a particular fish face. Flogging his fins and pouting his lips, a goldfish emerges, floating up from the bottom of the tank like he’s just missed the school bus. The fleet circle the tank as the goldfish chases the crowd, trailing, always a few fish fins away from the flock. Finn moves closer to the glass, following the lagging one with admiration.
The fish settles in the foreground and stops following the bunch, peddling in place, he turns to face Finn. He wonders if it’s Mikey; he can’t tell its gender, but maybe that’s not important. The fish’s mouth agape, and its eyes bulging; he looks bewildered but beautiful. Glistening and graceful with each wobble, wavering in place, staring at Finn with a befuddled fascination, Finn starts to think it’s not that he really wants a goldfish, it’s more like he covets them, really, envying their perception. A goldfish doesn’t get claustrophobic and compelled to travel the world. It isn’t concerned with its appearance, and it doesn’t ponder its purpose, even after staring at its own reflection all day long. It’s not preoccupied with looking for a perfect partner or brooding about having to bury its parents one day. A goldfish isn’t pining for the past or fearful of the future. It has no concept of mortality or its destiny with death, let alone a recollection of what it did yesterday morning. It has no ego and really has no identity. A goldfish doesn’t seek distraction from existing; it barely even knows it exists. It’s in a constant state of learning, even after it has already learned. It’s always discovering, after it has already discovered, and Finn remembers how amazing it felt to discover something for the first time; to experience that first ray of sunshine skimming along your skin, eliciting standing hairs along your arms and neck, or a first love, feeling your heart flutter inside your chest, every time like it’s the first time. A goldfish won’t ever become desensitized to it all, no matter how many times it experiences something. And even if it is subjected to unpleasantries, it’ll never become inured or jaded since it will always forget.
Finn smirks at the bug-eyed face that gazes back at him; it floats and then sinks, it descends and then rises, always continuing to remain in the same place; a complete facade of progress. The goldfish hovers, popping its mouth as bubbles escape, a process Finn recognizes as a means of drawing in water for oxygen absorption. The goldfish’s fins flicker as the staring contest continues; wiggling in place, the steadfast goldfish gapes, blowing bubbles every time its mouth opens: ‘Pop’ ‘Pop’ ‘Pop.’ Finn is mesmerized by the fish’s mechanical mannerism, and he zones in on the goldfish’s stoic face, trying to interpret its expression. And while before the fish’s mouth was listless, Finn sees its lips curl inward as a tongue juts, formulating a clear articulation of 3 syllables, “Kill yourself.”
“Kill yourself,” over and over the fish says, whipping back and forth. Finn rubs his eyes in disbelief, attempting to wipe away the hallucination, but when he opens his eyes, the goldfish remains, still popping, only this time the fish blurts 5 syllables with a resonating lilt, “Life’s meaningless.”
Smiling, Finn nods, appreciating the goldfish’s suggestion and theory. And Finn knows the goldfish has a solid recommendation because Finn’s thought about doing it before, performing a cannonball off a tall building; he’s thought about letting the wheel go while he was driving; he’s thought about looping a belt around his neck, wedging it between a door crack, and hanging like a mirthful Christmas ornament. He’s thought about maybe sitting in his car, letting it run with the garage door closed, and sucking on a hose that’s attached to the exhaust pipe; he’s even thought about ingesting some rat poison he could buy from Amazon, it would even come the next day since he had Prime.
But Finn knows despite the fish’s great idea, he can’t kill himself because if he does, he won’t be able to binge-watch Netflix for days anymore or upload stories to his Instagram, only to check every 6 minutes who’s viewed his post. He can’t kill himself because then he’d miss out on all the soul-enticing apps he frequents, swiping fingers like guitar strings. He’s never played the guitar before, but he imagines the motion is similar to expressing intrigue and disinterest in the digital dating realm. He knows he can’t kill himself because it would be rude to die before his parents, and it’s fucking selfish and sordid to force a parent to bury a child. And who the fuck knows what’s after this existence, Finn contemplates. If God exists, then he’ll be real fucked because he committed a mortal sin, and he’ll be destined to hell. If reincarnation is real, he’ll most likely come back as an inch worm or some kind of fucking insect because Finn has some real shitty luck, like seriously, he’s never won a single thing in his life, so he’ll most likely come back as an ant; spending days scavenging and turning soil. And while it might be cool to lift 23 times your bodyweight, he’s not too sold on the ant lifestyle entirely. A tree is another option, yeah, Finn wouldn’t be surprised if he was reincarnated as a tree; sentenced to a life of immobility and shedding fucking leaves. And if existence relates more to thermodynamics, Finn imagines his spirit metamorphosing into a ball of energy, drifting through the world, which isn’t too different from his current existence. But Finn doesn’t want to live in a gaseous state or take a chance at any other possibility.
“So, any of these doing it for you?” Brandon asks, shielding his mouth to hide a yawn.
Finn sighs and shakes his head because he’s been here before. Not in Franny’s Fish store, not even in this part of town, really, but in a similar situation, and he knows it will only be a matter of time before the fish stops talking to him and disappears. Sure, they’ll have a couple of good years together, and Finn will do everything to make the fish happy, sprinkling food droplets every morning with care; checking the tank’s PH level, making sure it’s filtered accordingly, and the pump provides adequate oxygen for an optimal living environment. But time would go on, things would certainly change and become complicated, and the fish would require attention and effort, just like all relationships, so Finn thinks what’s the point of picking something new if it’s just going to get ruined; what’s the point of trying. And he starts to think maybe his heart has been broken for far too long, and by now, maybe it has healed incorrectly, like a collarbone that’s never been popped back into place, and the last thing he needs is something to love and lose, again.
“No, actually, I think I’ve had enough,” Finn laments before turning and leaving, trekking over the fish revolt graveyard, past the bunny rabbits and chirping birds, opening the door to the store and making sure it closes behind him, wondering what he should post to his Instagram instead.