Not long after my release, I started buying fighting fish. Now I can’t stop myself from stopping off at the pet store practically every day and buying one or two more. I live in a house with seventy-two aquaria and counting.
Some people gamble, while others are addicted to sex. I buy fighting fish.
In a previous life, I never owned a single pet. I was not an animal person. When I had money to spend, I spent it on my ride. When I first got out, I figured I would start saving up what little money I had and buy another. Then I got this job stocking a pet shop, and I learned how they sell fighting fish in small plastic cups, cups barely wide enough for the fish to swim around. We were unpacking a shipment, and when I opened up the box, there were rows of these cups. The fish sit in there, all alone, and hardly move. They don’t have a plastic plant or even a fake rock. The night I first saw this, I had a dream that someone kept me in a cup. I woke with the sweats. It felt for a minute like I was back inside.
Every time I buy a fish, I feel like I am committing some liberation act. I watched this video of a bunch of dogs that lived their entire lives in a lab before being rescued. Somebody opened the crate they were in out in a big yard with soft grass. For a long time, the dogs just sat in the crate staring at the grass. Then, when one finally put a paw out, the dog touched the grass and pulled his paw back in. It took the dogs a long time to figure out the grass was safe, that it was soft.
When I bring the fighting fish home, I float his cup in his new tank and let him decide what he thinks is best. Sometimes it takes him fifteen minutes to decide to come out of that cup. I tell you, I know what he’s thinking because I’ve been there.
But what really gets me about all this is that anybody who knows anything about these fish understands that they will spend hours swimming in and out of a log or picking up bits of gravel with their mouths. You hardly have to watch them to learn all this. The people who breed these fish, they should know them better than anybody. But still they pack them up like sardines, and then they ship them off. We used to get crates where sometimes half the fish arrived dead. I tell you, like sardines.
I am proud to say that my fish are very colorful. I can watch them for hours, just staring at their colors. My buddy says they look so good because of the food I feed them, but I think there is more to it than that. I put aquatic plants in their tank with big natural leaves, and the fish use them to rest. I create stimulating aquascapes, so they have so much to see and do. Some fish even like to rub up against the plants. I tell you, my fish, they bloom.
I spent many days in solitary. Those stories you hear about prisoners in tiny cells talking to crickets and making friends with spiders, those stories are true. I am proud that my fish keep me company.
But here’s the thing. Every time I buy one, it gets replaced by a new one showing up. A sales associate, this nice lady in the fish department, thanked me recently for helping her section increase their quarterly sales. She seems genuinely grateful. I didn’t tell her how I’ve written to the store’s fighting fish supplier, practically begging them to sell the fish in larger containers. But the only response I ever get is a thank you letter with discount offers because I’m such a great customer. They keep offering me special deals and club memberships since I put so much money in their pockets. And that’s because I don’t just buy fish, which are cheap; I purchase all the other pricey things a fish needs.
Here’s the rub. I can’t stop buying those fish because every time I do, I sleep soundly that night.
Jeremy Nathan Marks lives in Canada. Recent work is found in Chiron Review, 365 Tomorrows, Bewildering Stories, Boog City, Jewish Literary Journal, Dissident Voice, New Verse News, Anti-Heroin Chic, and The Journal of Expressive Writing.