From the Fish Tank

Author | Catherine Cheng

Andy and I eat at the sushi place on Fourth Street every Friday. He always orders the shrimp roll and I get the crunchy crab roll. Neither of us enjoy the taste of raw fish. Andy worries about foodborne illnesses, I just can’t stand the cold feeling of death on my tongue. Sushi is good though; rice is good, cucumbers are good, and carrots remind me of Dad. Carrots were his favorite vegetable. 
Andy eats his sushi with his hands today. He is unrolling the pieces and peeling the rice off of the wraps. Carrots and cucumbers tumble out of their casing as his fingers bring clumps of rice to his lips. He chews hesitantly before pressing his fingers together – they’re sticky.
“Why are you doing that?” I ask.
He glances up at me before returning to his plate. He has shrimp piled up in the center of his circular platter and the remaining portions of the sushi on the outer edges. Andy traces a heart around the shrimp in the center.
“I don’t really know,” he finally says, “I guess I’m just thinking about us and how eating with you has become really natural. I could get used to eating every meal with you.”
I lean down closer to the table and avert my gaze. I’m forced to focus on my own plate. My rolls remain untouched, lined up one after another in a half curved line. The pink of crab sticks poke out from the center of each white circle. They look like roses in bloom. 
“Lilia? Are you listening?” Andy probes.
I shake my head and then replace it with a hesitant nod. I’m not sure if I want him to continue talking. My head is pulsing because his earlier declaration sounded like something old lovers would say. I can’t tell if I’m happy it did or if I’m upset. 
“Well, it’s just that I feel like it’s time. It’s been two years.”
“Don’t tell me you’re going to propose,” I whisper. My heart thuds and sends blood flooding to my eardrums. Mom said the moment Dad proposed was both the best and the worst moment of her life. She told me she forgot how to breathe in the heat of the moment and almost said no. I know if I say no, it will be no accident. 
“I know you’re shy, but I’m being serious. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
I hear the scrape of wood against wood as he scoots out of his chair. It is followed by the drag of leather soles on ground. Andy buys a new pair of leather shoes every month. He claims they make him feel fresh and young. He doesn’t know how much I hate the smell of new leather. It reminds me of long car trips and twisty roads. Nausea hits me now, coming in relentless waves of dilemma. 
My fists clench as I raise my gaze to meet Andy’s. He is perched on one knee and extending his hands towards me, offering me the ring I did not ask for. Do I say yes? Mom prepared me to love, but she never told me what to do when someone falls in love with me. I wonder if Dad would tell me to say yes. 
“Lilia, will you marry me?”
“Yes – no – I mean, maybe.”
I think Mom would want me to say yes. She always told me all love needed was a chance. If only my heartstrings would stop strumming themselves. If only my brain would wake up and tell me what to do. All I have is my gut and Mom’s words. 
“Yes, I will.”
It comes out of my mouth, tumbling from my lips to his ears, flying with baby bird wings. My lips are stretched, suspended in half smile. I can’t tell if I am soaring on the engine of adrenaline or if happiness truly flows within my veins. There is something there though, some emotion that tugs at my chest and it is like I’m gulping down salt water at the beach. A cough rips through my throat. 
Again and again my response travels over my head and I view the scene from third person, separated from my body. There are no fireworks, just my stone figure and Andy’s face of joy. His arms wrap around me as his laugh prevails. He becomes the shrimp on his plate, glorified in the center and I mold into the pieces surrounding him, scattered, lost, and terrified of the consequences of my words. 

My mom married three different men in the past twenty-five years. The first man she married, she divorced because he was unfaithful. The second man she married, she left because she loved him more than he loved her. The third man she married, she gave up on because she could not find room in her heart for him. Her eyes drift, searching for the man she holds in her imagination, the one who will sweep her off her feet. Mom is fifty-one now and she is still searching.
Dad was the second man she married; he died before I turned sixteen. He only married once in his thirty some years but I’m not sure if he loved as freely as Mom did and does. He stopped sleeping in the master bedroom by the time I started middle school. Whenever I had friends over, they’d ask me why he slept in a different room; their parents all slept together. I told them I didn’t know. 
Growing up, I was closer to Dad. I sat in his lap as he read me articles from the Daily News and followed him on bicycle wheels whenever he hiked around the neighborhood. When I brought home yearbooks, I’d sit by his side with a sharpie in my hand and cross out the pictures of boys I had no interest in. He’d laugh and ruffle my hair. He told me one day I might meet the right one, but mostly likely, I would not. Mom scowled at those words. 
“Little one,” she’d whisper as she stroked my cheek, “love isn’t what your father claims. Love is so much more beautiful.”
Dad’s love was an almost empty creek while Mom’s was a crater, talented at collecting tears from storm clouds. I wonder if Mom still believes in love like she used to.

I fill my fish tank with cold water and release the goldfish I had captured into it. They slip in and begin to travel the space, twirling their tails and brushing the clear with dashes of jeweled specks. I count five total and congratulate myself on my luck. Five is more than most people catch.
One swims up to the edge of the tank and stares up at me. I hold its gaze for a few seconds before it loses interest and turns away. Its tail shimmers as it leaves me behind. They always look the most desirable when they are moving further and further away. 
I set my wallet down on the table and walk to my kitchen. There are a pile of unwashed dishes in the sink, but a few clean glasses are still on the counter. I take one and fill it up with water from the faucet. The water burns against my parched throat, but I gulp it down regardless. It is a good burn and reminds me of the tea I was served my first night in Beijing – seeping and rough against my tongue. Of course, the water in my hands now is not drenched in spices nor even hot, but it burns in an equally wicked way. This is the first glass of water I’ve had all day.
Today, Andy asked me if I’d rather be loved or love. I whispered into his ear that if I could not have both, I’d rather have neither. It was my way of avoiding the question, but Andy accepted it. He responded by kissing my forehead and promising I would always have both. 
His words repeat in my head as I walk towards the windows in my living room. I push aside the curtains and hope for moonlight. Silver floods in from a moon not completely full but more than half lit. I am like the moon, a pretty little lie, a mere reflection of another’s light. Andy and I both like the moon, but for different reasons. I use the moon as a mirror; he sees it as a romantic symbol. Maybe that’s why he can’t see through my lies. In his eyes, my hesitance to kiss him and hold his hand, is just my way of loving him. 

Airplanes shoot through the skies, leaving behind lines of dreamlike white. I want to stay beneath the heavens of my city’s airport forever. Mom comes back today from Florida, but I don’t exactly want her back. Once she arrives, everything begins.
She comes out of the airport terminal dressed in Hawaiian print and three shades darker. The beaches must have treated her well and I am thankful she does not have a new man by her side. Mom is still Mom and part of me thanks God she is back.

The photographer for my engagement pictures has a shaved head and a tattoo of a snake on his wrist. He smells of fresh flowers, though, spring roses. Still, I’m not sure why Andy chose him. Andy doesn’t approve of tattooed individuals.
“Turn a little to the left,” the photographer commands me, “try to look happier!”
I turn and end up with my head tucked under Andy’s chin. His bone cuts into my skull. If we have children, I hope they inherit my softer jawline. 
“No, no. Happy! Not awkward – happy.”
I think happy thoughts. I think about the time Dad bought me goldfish from the store. They were the only pet Mom allowed since she hated fur and feces. They entertained me for a good while before I sent them off to the sea through the plumbing of our toilet. That was before I realized fish couldn't return after you flushed them.
“Lilia, you’re grimacing,” Andy whispers.
“Just stomach cramps,” I reassure him before stretching my lips into a wide smile. My period isn’t until next week, but the excuse works every time. Andy didn’t like talking about my bodily functions; blood scares him almost as much as the horror movies we never watch. “I’ll be ok, I promise.”
“Alright. I just don’t want these pictures to look bad, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
Mom and Dad’s engagement pictures are still stored in our family albums. Mom looks at them ever so often and I look at them too. In them, she is the human outside the tank, smiling, eyes bright as she observes and he is the goldfish, too beautiful for his own good. They loved each other in an imperfect way.

The first time Andy kissed me, we were walking out of the library. He had my books tucked under his arm and I held the drink we were sharing. Beijing’s summer sun brushed against my skin and Andy squinted under its glare. He asked if I wanted to go somewhere cooler. When I didn’t respond, he leaned in.
I don’t really remember how I felt when his lips grazed mine. Maybe my heart skipped a beat, maybe it didn’t. He took me out for ice cream after though, I remember asking for vanilla bean. The ice cream was sweet. 

The fourth of my five goldfish died today, leaving only one. I don’t feel any pain, but my body stands weightlessly. As air conditioning blows against me, I wobble a little, becoming a wind chime that does not chime. In the tank, the last goldfish floats alone. Its tail flicks with spots of gold as it swims without care, darting from one frontier of the tank to the other. Already, it has forgotten its companions.

Mom flips through the bridal store catalog. I know she already has her eyes set on a strapless dress that is lined with pearls. She likes simplicity best and thinks I should aim for a classy look. Even so, she continues to flip through the book, giving me room to have my own opinion. 
I gaze at the pictures from over her shoulder. I used to have dreams about my wedding day. I told Dad I wanted to get married just so I could wear a dress of white lace and pretend to be a princess for a day. He pinched my nose in response, but I could tell from the smile on his face that he knew I would be the prettiest little princess. I would be his princess.
Mom points to a lace trimmed dress paired with a corset back. “What do you think about this one?”
“It’s alright,” I say.
It is more than alright. The cut would make any body type attractive and slim down any waist. The lace would bring out the innocence in any pair of eyes. The ribbon spilling from the back would cascade in a waterfall of silk. I cannot picture myself in it, though. Within me sleeps a numbness and I am under anesthesia, a sleeping beauty who cannot wake.
Mom closes the book and slides it across the glass coffee table. Then she turns to me and places a hand on my knee. Her touch burns against my skin and my chest collapses on to my stomach as I attempt to breathe under her gaze.
“Mom?” I say, “Is something wrong?”
“I want you to be honest with me. Are you sure about marrying Andy?”
“I –” I didn’t know. “I’m not sure – how were you sure about Dad?”
Mom’s hand draws away from me as her head turns. Her fingers tap on the sofa’s armrest to an offbeat rhythm and I can’t help but notice a few streaks of gray scattered in her hair. Was she always this frail?
“He made me feel happy in a way that was different. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. Your dad – he was and is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
I see Mom and Dad cooking dinner together. The smell of spaghetti sauce is prominent. Dad makes Italian meatballs and Mom salts the pasta. I stand in the background running my hands over the plates and silverware, vaguely aware of their laughter. 
“I didn’t know for sure,” she whispers, “but it felt right.”
“Mom, I never asked you this, but – why did Dad stop loving you?”
She stops tapping her fingers and I wonder if I should have kept quiet. It didn’t matter now anyway, Dad is gone. Yet curiosity hangs in the back of my head, latching on to my neck and the vocal chords inside. 
“Because Lilia, your dad loved me in a faded way. That type of love doesn't survive. It’s a love that accepts an ideal lower than the one you actually longs for. It is a love that eventually hurts you and everyone around you.”
Am I hurting Andy? The white gold band of my engagement ring brands my finger, marking it with reminders of my lies. From the window spills sunlight, but I can only think of the moon. I am a fish swimming through the craters of the moon.

I sit at my desk spinning a quarter and then periodically stopping it with my palm. Tails and I tell Andy, heads and I keep quiet. Sometimes I get tails and sometimes I get heads, but regardless of what I get, I continue to spin the coin. An answer already lies in my heart, hidden beneath layers of muscle, veins, and arteries, I just didn’t want to accept it yet. I want to be the bride with silk falling from her shoulder blades, the bride walking towards the altar with a sheer veil on top her locks, I want to be – but I did not want him.
Outside of my window, Beijing’s night is alive and sparkling with light. Wind blows into my room as I lift the up the glass and the bittersweet fragrance of tea from the shops below my apartment drifts in. I taste its sweetness on my tongue. It tastes of vanilla bean – I’m not ready to get married yet. 

Andy stands before me, his hair tucked behind his ears. His shirt is freshly pressed and he wears my favorite brand of cologne. He smells of our apartment and the memories of my past two years. On his wrist shines the watch I bought for him on his last birthday.
“Lilia, what’s the occasion? I rushed back from work since you sounded worried.”
My chest thuds and inside flames lick. The fire spreads upwards until it reaches my eyes and I have to bite down on my lips to keep myself from crying. My lips taste bitter and they are chapped.
“I need to tell you something,” I say.
Andy raises an eyebrow and cocks his head. He reaches a hand towards me and it hovers over my cheek for a few seconds before he drops it. I’m sure he senses it too. Somewhere above our heads rests a see through hourglass. 
I take a few steps towards him, closing the distance between us until I am tucked underneath his chin. I ignore how sharp it is as I wrap my arms around his waist and let myself slide into him. With my cheek against his chest, I pick up every vibration of his heart. The tears I held back earlier are falling into my mouth, leaving a strangely sweet taste on my tongue. 
“I’m sorry, Andy. I can’t marry you.”
His body shakes as he stumbles backwards and I lose my grip on him. My tears continue to fall as I bask in a bitter sweetness. So this is what it feels like to leave an almost lover. I do love him, but I do not love him enough.
“Are you crazy?” he asks. “Don’t you know how much I love you? Look at yourself, why are you doing this?”
I am crazy. I am crazy for pretending to want him. I am crazy for waiting so long to leave him. I am crazy, but he doesn’t understand how sweet my tears are.
“Do you remember when you asked me if I’d rather be loved or love?” 
He nods and I focus on his eyes. They bleed equally as red as mine probably do. He deserves a woman who will understand his pains and I am not that woman. 
“I know my answer now. I’d rather love.”
My eyes shift away from his and I focus on the fish tank instead. I walk backwards, away from him, my mind blank. He is still there, standing, but I don’t see him. It is like I have been observing him through an inch of glass and only just realized there is a world beyond the glass. Maybe we’re both fish because my answer has always been the same: I’d rather love.

About the Author | Catherine Cheng is a freshman in the Business Honors Program at the University of Texas. Her work has been published by Navigating the Maze, YARN, Canvas Lit., and The Glass Kite Anthology amongst others and she is a big fan of The Adroit Journal. In her free time, she enjoys reading contemporary poetry, prose, and angsty fanfiction while binging on chocolates and tea.