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Connie Guo

The Contemplative Musings of a Goldfish

I think it started on my seventh birthday when, as a surprise, my father bought me a goldfish as a present: tiny, slender, sleek, a brilliant flash of orange and yellow with flaring feather-like fins.

We kept it in the dining room, and I used to watch it glide around and around in circles in its thick glass bowl. It sometimes nudged at the blue artificially colored pebbles settled at the bottom as though it was hoping that they would give way to some opening to a lake or an ocean.

My father told me he got me the goldfish (which I promptly named Gerald) in order to teach me responsibility; I was supposed to be in charge of taking care of it, which generally amounted to sprinkling bits of fish food into the water every now and then.

But within a week, Gerald died.

I still can't be sure if this sudden death was precipitated by my forgetting to feed it or some other reason, but Gerald was only dead for four minutes—or was it four hours—before abruptly twitching back into life. I studied it for at least a good thirty minutes to make sure of this fact, wondering how its limp orange body, which had before floated to the top of the fishbowl, utterly slack and lifeless, could have miraculously sprung back into life and resumed prodding the rocks below it as though nothing had happened. But in any case, after that incident, I changed its name to Lazarus.

After Lazarus's eventual (and final) death, my parents bought me a baby chick from a roadside market to placate me. It had black beady eyes, a short curved beak, and its pale feathers were dusted light yellow. It fit in my hand when I held it, and often I could feel the sharp thumping beats of its heart behind the small cage of its chest against my fingertips. I thought those heartbeats were rather flimsy things, and that the chick's life, which was encased within the rhythm of those feeble pulses, seemed too fragile cupped in my hand, something that could be easily crushed and ruined. That thought was always distinctly unnerving to me, so I avoided picking it up unless I had to clean out the cardboard box in which it lived.

In about two weeks, though, I found that one of the chick's legs had given away. I wasn't sure if it was broken, but it remained tucked under its body, bent at an odd angle, leaving the chick no other option but to limp around the confines of the container, falling over with each step.

A few days later it couldn't even walk anymore. It lay on its back, its one good foot clawing at the air, feathers hard and matted. I would hear it scrabbling helplessly around the box in the middle of the night, scratching and chirping weakly, piteously.

When the chick died, I named it John because it was not a Lazarus.

But, honestly, I also think a lot of how it started was based on circumstance. The reason I'm here now is because of a series of events held in line by a tenuous piece of sagging string.

You can make suppositions if you want. Conjectures. Speculate and patch together alternate realities, separate worlds, where the things that supposedly happened did not actually happen, and the memories I supposedly made are not real memories but thin, filmy substances that existed only sometimes between worlds where they hung suspended and unused, shriveled dry like bits of flapping laundry pinned onto a clothesline. You can contemplate the what-ifs and what-could-have-been if it makes you feel any better.

Like, for instance, what if I didn't see that cyclist get hit by the constable's car at that intersection early that Friday morning on my way to school.

I glimpsed it briefly from a distance as I approached the stoplight: a stale green light, the vehicle at the intersection, and a girl on a bike pedaling onto the crosswalk. There was hardly any time to stop or even to slow down; she was too close.

Within minutes the police came swarming in with their flashing blue and red lights, closing the road for hours that day, even after the ambulance drove in to the scene and carted away the girl's broken body. News helicopters came buzzing in like flies, hovering attentively in the sky for several minutes before spinning away again, giant turning heads, as if to them, the situation had come to an uninteresting standstill.

A line of cars quickly formed behind me, stretching almost a mile back, and if I peered over the edge of my steering wheel, I could see the bike strewn flat against the street, bits and pieces of it scattered in different directions, and a sickening smear of dark red blood like a lurid dash on the concrete.

I was seventeen then.

Or what if I never acquired what my mother used to call that "disgusting habit" of incessantly snapping rubber bands against my wrist, right up next to the thin spidery veins that burrowed themselves away beneath the flesh of my arms. It would leave bright pink welts on my skin, and sometimes they wouldn't go away for days. I used to go through packages of rubber bands, mostly because they broke too easily. They snapped in half when I stretched them too far or pulled too hard and they fell onto the carpet, the mattress, the sidewalk, the desks at school, the spaces between couch cushions, the granite kitchen countertop, the floor of the car, the linoleum aisles of the nearby supermarket, always lying mangled and curled like the carcass of a sun-dried worm.

I remember the look my mother used to give me, one of unadulterated revulsion. There was something about the grim line of her lips and the narrow set of her black eyes that seemed to condemn me silently, hatefully. She pulled the air towards her as though she was drawing a bow taut, stretching the tension between us like it was a thing of elastic, waiting for it to snap in my face. I noticed her sidelong glances, her eyes flickering to my wrist and then away with her mouth pursed in distaste, only serving to exacerbate the growing wrinkles that had begun penciling themselves onto her face.

But, of course, there can never be a what-if, only what was, and part of what was occurred while I was sitting in the passenger seat of a car at twenty-three.

An acquaintance of mine was driving and two other people sat in the back. They'd managed to convince me to go to a party held that afternoon. I agreed to their invitation more out of a need to fill up the caverns of empty time that hung in front of me like a vacuum, and I anticipated the loud pulsing music, the mesh of dozens of voices swarming together in the charged air, hoping they would crowd out the slippery, inchoate thoughts that had lately been lurking in the attic of my mind. At that time anything was fine, really.

The sky was overcast. A great flat plain of grey clouds blanketed the city like a pall, but it was only a dry threat of rain. We were waiting at the stoplight when another car, a slick silver Accord, pulled up beside us. Its driver's window was cracked open and behind it was a pasty-skinned, middle-aged man with rimless glasses that were perched on an exceptionally large nose.

The man drummed his fingers against the edge of the steering wheel with one hand while the other swiftly tossed a cigarette butt out through the partially open window where it fell onto the road in a rather matter-of-fact manner. Shortly afterwards, the light switched to green, and the silver Accord sped away.

In an instant a sudden disgust dawned on me. I replayed the scene numerous times in my head as we continued on down the street, unable to pinpoint exactly what it was that bothered me. It was a very mundane action, a casual occurrence, but perhaps it was the partly the casualness of it that was so disturbing: the flippant toss, the apathetic disregard.

But whatever it was, it left me enervated, overcome with a sense of weariness and nausea that seemed to leaden the marrows of my bones. I didn't feel like going to the party anymore; I didn't feel like going anywhere. I wanted to be dropped back off at my apartment, to be settled down on a chair or in a bed and to lie there immobile until I started to rot or mold or decompose, nicely and slowly, without much fuss, no difficulty, no distress.

I have never tried to kill myself before today. I had only ever thought about it the way most people thought about it, in fleeting spells, the idea always carelessly attached to the tail end of a loose thought or errant contemplation, never considered with solid conviction. Except that if you did, you might have realized how you could kill yourself at any moment, only that you didn't, and that the strength of the decision was the only sort of barrier you could erect for protection against all the morbid possibilities that splayed themselves out in front of you. Or you might find yourself one day lying slack and limp in a fishbowl of your own without any apparent or substantial reason within grasp.

I suppose it might interest you to ask why I did this. But if you really want to know, I'd like to refer you back to where I think it really started: with my goldfish Gerald. And then you'll understand that maybe the culmination of my entire life was to realize, in a sudden tragic epiphany, the reason why my parents never named me Lazarus.

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