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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

How to love a fish

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I stumbled into the dorm kitchen half asleep to find that the fishbowl was gone. “Where’s Social Experiment?” I asked the guy sitting there with his laptop. “Where’s our fish?” I repeated. He shrugged. I got my glass of water and stared at the blank spot on the counter where the fishbowl used to be. Bad news.

Social Experiment was always a sickly looking little beta fish, but maybe that was because his feeding schedule was collectively up to the floor. Hence the name. His coloration never seemed good, and he had the irritating habit of going into deep hibernation or meditation or whatever it is that fish do on the bottom of fishbowls when it looks for all the world like they’re dead. Logically, I knew that when fish die, they turn belly upward and float to the surface like dead leaves, but I couldn’t help but be concerned about the little guy when he went so still. I’d tap on the glass, gently at first, but then harder, until he woke with a start, fins spinning, tiny eyes glaring at me for interrupting his sleep.

I remember when my first pet died—my beta fish, Tom. I got him from the local pet store when I was about four. I tried to teach him tricks, and while he never mastered “sit” or “roll over,” he was very good at “come to the surface to eat food.” The day he turned upward, when I was about six, my mom held me in her arms

and I cried a few solemn tears. We buried him in a matchbox.

I’ve never had the kind of pet that loves back. Cats, dogs, birds, all pets with fur or feathers were out of the question because of my rampant allergies. I’ve had fish, snails, and tadpoles. I’ve had caterpillars and grasshoppers for a few days before I released them back into the wild. Not growing up with cats or dogs, I’m left at a bit of a loss when I meet my friends’ emotive pets, as if the animals were foreign dignitaries from a culture I don’t understand.

A couple of days ago, I went back to the lounge for another late night glass of water. I ran into a friend and, clinging to hope, I figured I’d ask him my question: “Where’s Social Experiment?” He assured me that another floormate had taken Social Experiment under her wing and into her room. I was stunned, but then it clicked. I couldn’t be the only one on the floor who had a special spot in their heart for the little beta who did nothing whatsoever. Some- body would make sure that he wouldn’t become the latest tragedy of the commons. I was a little embarrassed that that somebody hadn’t been me.

I did more sleuthing. When I saw a group of my floormates sipping tea in the study lounge, I poked my head in and asked, “Where’s Social Experiment?” Apparently Social Experiment is being nursed back to health by a Carl who is “some kind of expert on fish or something.” This might be the best medical care that a beta fish could dream of in southern Minnesota, assuming that the Mayo Clinic has not opened an aquatic wing.

As we talked, our fears and stories about Social Experiment came to the surface. Does he have parasites? Why does he look so pale? Can fish become depressed? A young woman admitted that she once picked a squirming Social Experiment up off the floor with her bare hands during a botched bowl-cleaning endeavor. “That might have been the beginning of his downward spiral,” she said, looking sheepish. But if that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Social Experiment and small animals of his kind have taught me that you don’t need to be particularly special to be loved by many. Sometimes just existing is enough. That small spirit sleeping in his fishbowl always reminded me that there are so many different ways of being in the world that have nothing to do with staying up too late writing papers and drinking water that tastes like procrastination. And in the end, that’s enough to win my heart. So, good luck to you, Carleton fish doctor, wherever you are. The residents of Second Cassat miss their littlest friend.

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