By Kai White
Kai White is a senior at the College of Staten Island majoring in English and minoring in studio art. When she’s not writing and illustrating her own stories, she’s most likely exploring the fictional worlds of others.
Enjoy the following preview of the creative pieces you can expect from CSI’s own community of writers in this fall’s upcoming campus literary magazine, “Lost in Thought.”
The fish swims in a standard fishbowl: eleven inches high, ten inches wide. I don’t remember when it arrived, or from where it came. It appeared one day, as things in a house with too many elements sometimes do. At first, it was simply the fish in a bowl with water. Sand at the bottom, filter on the side. But overtime, it began to accumulate things. A dusty rose-colored castle. Marbles and stones with bits of mica that shone when the light hit just right. Moss balls and corals and leafy ferns the fish hid in when a large face appeared. It’s a nice fishbowl. So nice, one could almost miss the cramped closeness of the pink castle, with its ever-open entryways that exit to nowhere. The plants are always green and lively, in an eternal state of plastic-perfection. The fish eats at the same time, every day, when the hand casts the black shadow over its warped world. Except when the hand forgets. Things like fish, you see, only exist when they’re remembered. It is an undeniable certainty that the fish has a presence, a thereness that attests to its existence. But it is a thereness that can never exist outside the context of the fishbowl.
Really, I say it’s best we don’t remember the origins of this fish or the fishbowl. Don’t ruminate on which of the two came first. Perhaps they only ever existed alongside each other. Be honest with yourself:
Did the fish ever matter without it?
Dinner in the Fishbowl
You sit down for dinner only when your mother places it on the table. She sets your father’s plate down first, hers second, yours last. Dinnertime is a ritual of reliable consistency: Father comes down from his office and sits at the table. Like a switch on her neck was flicked, Mother sweeps in from the kitchen with three plates, one in each hand, one on her arm, a holdover trick from when she worked as a waitress. You hear the television change from a background sitcom to the six o’clock news. That’s your cue to come downstairs and take your seat, your back hitting the chair perfectly synchronized with your mother positioning your plate between cup and cutlery. When your father leads grace, you fold your hands and bow your head but keep your eyes slit open. Not a beat after the “amen” you’re already scarfing down roast potatoes.
Your attention balances precariously between the dry newscaster numbering the casualties of a parade shooting with an eerie indifference and the peas rolling away from your spoon. So absorbed in your enterprise, you almost miss the gesture. It’s as the reporter at the scene of the shooting offers the anchor his jovial salutations that you hear it:
Your father, sighing.
You and your mother both sit at attention. Her focus shifts fully to your father. You stare harder at the television. There’s a beat of silence at the table. This one isn’t like the previous, communal quiet of mother-father-child engaging in the monotonous mealtime dance. This silence is charged, a rubber band slowly stretching back, sooty clouds rolling over a serene sky as the very air holds its breath. (But in its own way, perhaps this, too, is routine).
“What is it? Something wrong with the food?” your mother asks. In your mind, this had always been a rhetorical question. Someone who never sets foot in the kitchen has little business condemning the sole chef of the house. One may gripe at an unforeseen thunderstorm, but they do not tell God how to orchestrate the facets of weather. Your father never seemed to understand this sentiment, much to your chagrin. You’d think he’d know better. He keeps a Bible on his nightstand.
Out of the corner of your eye, you catch him prodding his chicken with a fork. The skin crackles when the tines make contact, a burning match on kindling. “It’s a bit overcooked, huh?”
You hear your mother swallow and imagine her lifting her water glass and draining a good half in one long sip. When she speaks, her words are still crisp. “Gran called. Got a bit distracted.” You’d always wondered why, once a child has a child, their parents stop being their parents. “Mother” becomes “grandma,” father is “grandpa.” Like when youth is killed by adulthood, that old relationship dies with it. Everything is renamed in relation to the new baby. You aren’t you, but Mom. Your mother isn’t your mother, she’s grandmother. Snakes shedding skin, still themselves, but other. Fish only ever lose their scales when something has harmed them. They do not molt into a transcendent form of themselves with every phase of life. You wonder if you prefer a thing that constantly changes, or a thing being ever-constant in an ever-changing world. To drift with the current or resist the flow. (Be honest with yourself. Don’t you know the answer?)
The newscasters on television have brightened the somber mood of the broadcast with a celebrity guest, a jolly chef that looks more suited for a kid’s cartoon than a news network. The sparkle in the anchorwoman’s eyes convinces you that she has more passion for celery than loss of life.
“Did she ask for money?” your father prompts.
Your mother huffs something too humorless for a laugh, but too light for a sigh. Whatever breath exists between hilarity and ire. “She always asks for money. You know how she is.”
“Well, did you give it to her?”
A new silence. Clouds charging with lightning with a hum you can only smell. The trembling tension of a rubber band pulled completely taught.
The celebrity chef lines up heads of lettuce on a cutting board. The knife they hold, you note, looks far too lethal for chopping lettuce.
“Do you have to ask like that? Like I committed some sort of crime by giving my own mother money?”
“It’s not like she needs it. She just uses it to gamble.”
The knife makes a certain sound when it’s drawn out of a cleaved head, a wet shlick. The first time you hear it, you think the chef has chopped their finger, that the knife is cutting through blood and bone. You wonder how the anchorwoman would react to that, if she would scream at the blood spraying across the cutting board or simply transition to the weather report. You think of how she reported the deaths of dozens at that parade using the same detachment she spoke of stock prices. The question cleverly answers itself, leaving you a bit hollower in its wake.
“You never turn her down when she comes to you for something, but expect me to act differently?”
Your father’s reply plays in your ears before he says it, the script of a movie watched a million-and-one times. “It’s money I’m making. Naturally I can decide when to give it up.”
The heads roll one by one, piling up like bodies at a city parade.
“You make it sound like I’m some—some leech or something!”
“This again,” he looses something between a sigh and a groan. Whatever breath exists between ire and exhaustion. “You’re putting words in my mouth.”
“I’m repeating exactly what you said! You don’t think being a housewife is a full-time job? That I take care of everything here because I want to?”
“Is it not my money that you’re helping that woman out with?”
“‘That woman’ is your mother-in-law. She’s not some stranger! By your logic, if I buy groceries with the money you make, do you get to decide whether we eat?”
Metal slams on wood and you jump, because surely this time the chef cut themselves, that raucous bang, any second now they’ll start spurting blood all over set—
But your mother jumps too, her foot knocking yours, and you face your parents again to see your father has slammed his fork against the table and oh, the chicken isn’t all that bad, is it? Sure, it’s a bit dry, but your mother restocked the cabinets yesterday, there’s plenty of condiments—
You stuff an entire chicken leg in your mouth, like you can assuage your mother’s anger by sheer strength of your own hungry gusto. But she calls you again, her hand dropping onto your shoulder. Its weight brings your arm down until you lower your hand, chicken leg and all. A gavel on a sound block. “It’s about time for you to be getting ready for bed.”
The space in your stomach that your dinner hasn’t made it to tightens with a cramp. You look down at your plate, not even half-finished. Back to your mother. “But…”
There’s the sound of two things grating against each other, like the chef is sliding the knife across the cutting board to sweep off the leftover pieces of lettuce. Casting the unnecessary aside.
Your mother’s hand gives your shoulder a little shake. “Come on. You’re too big to argue.” You want to ask her why you, a child, are at an age where it isn’t okay for you to talk back when your father is not. (Perhaps it’s for the same reason your mother sets his dish down first, even if you’re the only one seated at the table). Even if you ask, even if you manage to say the words growing like crystals on your tongue, you doubt your mother would ever hear them. In these moments, her eyes don’t look at you, but through. There is no place for you within the storm at the dining table. Any words you say would drown in their thunderous rage.
Like always, the sharp corners of crystals cut your mouth. Like always, they turn back to salt water before you’ve even left the room.
You lie on your back over the comforter, your fist pressing into your mewling stomach. Your vision swims, but you don’t know if it’s because you’ve been staring at the ceiling with too-few blinks between or something else. You startle upright.
No one fed the fish.
You begin to creep back into the dark hall, but the harsh voices of two angry adults trying to sound like they aren’t angry echo off the walls. You freeze at the top of the staircase, hand clenching the banister. There’s a lump of uneven paint beneath your finger. You pick at it, considering. Your decision is made long before you’ve scratched it off the banister, but you keep standing in the hall anyway, body inexplicably trapped between three points of existence: the fish in the farthest corner of the living room, waiting for the shadow of a hand that’ll never appear; your parents, arguing at night just to kiss in the morning, a rinse-repeat cycle more reliable than the washing machine; your room, almost silent, but shivering with the strain of not-quite-normalcy, only imperfect if you look long enough.
This time, when you lie back in bed, you curl up fully under the covers. Your stomach still growls, but you close your eyes anyway.
A fish can go a day without eating.
Weeknights in the Fishbowl
His blunt nails bite into the nape of your neck where he grips you. Gives you a shake. (A blunt-nailed hand banging on fishbowl-glass. Is the fish trembling, or is that just the water?) The actors on the television laugh with splitting faces, but that laughter is drowned out by the artificial audience track washing over it. Your eyes train on their happy faces instead of your father bearing down on you. You can tell by the rising volume of his shouts that he doesn’t like that, but you can’t hear what he’s saying. There’s a wall of water between his words and your ears, and it’s making everything garbled. Maybe the wall is in front of your eyes, too. The television screen has gone blurry, the images smears of light. The wall of water in your eyes fills up, spills over. Salt drips into the corner of your mouth. You lick it away. If you drink it fast enough, maybe he won’t be mad anymore.
You realize the haze has started to clear when your mother talks, and you hear it. Or maybe, it’s what she says that makes that soundproof bubble pop.
Her face is made of lines of worry and twilight shadows, its angles carved harsher by the flashing TV. It makes her eyes glow, feverish. Frantic, she bats her hand, like it’s a remote controlling your father’s screams. Being his wife, and (consequently) your mother, she knows exactly what words will bring everything back to your regularly scheduled programming:
“Honey! The neighbors!”
A muscle ticks in your father’s jaw, neck vein pulsing, brows scrunching. You think he’s fit to burst, too. Surely, an eleven-by-ten bowl—so few inches, you can hold it in your hands, don’t drop it, don’t look too long—surely, there’s no receptacle large enough to hold all that anger. (You never know what he’s mad about. Everything and nothing. You don’t know anything, but it’s never his fault. That’s what he tells you, and you Listen To Your Father, because Father’s Always Right).
But then, he breathes out. The muscle loosens. The vein melts back beneath his skin. Brows relax. You only notice his screams had shaken the fishbowl when the water is once again still. You wonder about the fish. It probably slept through the whole thing. Nothing seems to bother it anymore. (Sloshing water, calm water. Storms and serenity are one in the same. It can’t change what happens outside the fishbowl. Best not care at all).
By the time you’re upstairs, brushing your teeth for bed, the salt’s stiffened your cheeks, made them dry and itchy.
(Tomorrow, you’ll sit with the fish for a bit. Press your fingers to the cool glass. “Won’t let any water spill over next time. Promise.”)
(Tonight, you lie under your covers and wonder if the world would like fish more if they could change their scales to be everything everyone wanted).
(Why bother wondering? The fish of the future will only ever live within the warped walls of a small bowl. A fish spares no thought for the world beyond the glass).
Categories: Creative Writing
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