The big, blown-glass globe sat on a shelf at a Cost Plus World Market. It looked perfect. It was supposed to be a vase for flowers, but in my altered state (I was high), I could only see it as the Platonic ideal of a fish bowl.
Though the $40 price tag would blow my entire home decor budget, I had to have it.
A tiny fish swimming around a great big bowl would add a note of humorous sophistication to the big party house I was preparing to move into with a bunch of my college friends, a home that would otherwise be plastered with beer posters. A small sticker indicated that artisans had fashioned the bowl in Poland. My great-grandfather was a glassblower from Poland, so the bowl was mine by birthright.
Then I went to a nearby pet shop, bought the first tiny fish I saw—an angelic blue and orange betta—and named it Poland. I lined the big bowl with rocks, filled it up with water, introduced Poland to his new aquatic habitat, and set it on an end table in the "dining room" where we mostly played beer pong.
It's hard to admit this, but it's true: I loved the bowl before I loved the fish. I was more focused on the art than on the life. I should have recognized my cart-before-the-horse affection as a perversion. I should have remembered that I'd never been able to keep a fish alive. I should have swiftly abandoned the project as soon as I picked that bowl up. But I didn't. Instead, something else happened.
About a week into my stewardship of Poland's life, I realized that he was unhappy. He seemed afraid of the water above him: He kept burying his head in the rocks at the bottom of the bowl. After some googling, I discovered that betta fish live in shallow rice paddies in Thailand. My big bowl was a variable open ocean, probably a nightmare environment for Poland.
So I dumped out as much water as I could. This seemed to work. He seemed happy for some time.
Then we had our first house party. Well, my roommates did. I was away visiting my girlfriend, but when I returned, I noticed Poland's bowl was filled to the brim with black, completely opaque liquid. An empty bottle of Captain Morgan's black "Tattoo" rum and the acrid smell of beer told me that people had filled up the bowl with booze in an attempt to get my fish drunk.
Clearly, Poland was dead. Rum and beer are not water. In my infinite wisdom about fish—or more to the point, my infinite neglect—I decided I would deal with Poland's dead body, and cleaning out his bowl, when we cleaned the house. Nothing about it seemed urgent.
D.H. Lawrence has a poem called "Fish" that goes some way toward explaining my apathy. In it, he spends a long time trying to relate to fish. "I said to my heart, who are these? And my heart couldn't own them..." he writes. "Fishes, / with their gold, red eyes, and green-pure gleam... and their pre-world loneliness, / and more-than-lovelessness. /And white meat; / They move in other circles."
A week later, cleaning the house, pouring out the black liquid, I caught Poland's body in a red Solo cup.
AND, LO, POLAND WAS ALIVE!
Why had I assumed he was dead? He wiggled when I dumped him into fresh water. I rushed to clean the bowl and the rocks. I filled the tank with a little bit of water—just the way he liked it—and set the bowl back on the end table.
Then we had another party.
I was present this time, keeping a close eye on the fish bowl. Not that it helped. At one point during the festivities, a blockheaded ag student approached the bowl and picked it up by the rim. He held it up to his face, as if he wanted to look Poland in the eye. He said, "Nice fish," stupidly, before dropping the bowl on the table and shattering it.
My girlfriend—a hero—scooped up Poland with a Solo cup and placed him upstairs in my bedroom for safety. Looking at him in the cup, he seemed happy, happier than he had been in the bowl. Or maybe fish don't know happiness.
That night, something must have happened in my sleep, because when I woke up, the Solo cup containing Poland was on the ground. The water had spilled out, but Poland lay inside the cup, his gill clinging to the last few remaining drops of liquid.
Oh no, Poland!
I rushed to the bathroom and filled the cup with a little bit of water, put the cup on top of my television, and then... more or less left it there for six months.
I changed the water every now and then, and fed him maybe once every two weeks. Did the Solo cup better approximate a rice paddy than the big bowl? Did he feel like he was living in a dark cave? Did he feel completely blind to the world? Did he feel at all? I couldn't tell. But my sense was that Poland preferred living in the Solo cup.
Whatever the case, he persisted. Poland would not be vanquished.
But my friend Mark was furious. Mark tended two big aquariums filled with African cichlids. He demanded to take custody of Poland. He said he'd fill a jar with special roots and create a habitat designed especially for bettas. I allowed it.
In the heavenly environment of roots in a jar, Poland began to turn white from his tail to his head. We couldn't figure out why. I assumed he was dying of happiness.
But that's not how Poland ultimately died.
Mark left to visit family that Christmas. He set Poland's glass jar beside the heater, assuming all would be fine. Also next to the heater were the 60 other fish in Mark's keeping.
Unfortunately, a severe cold snap overcame the heater (we were living in Missouri), and Poland ultimately froze to death in paradise—along with the 60 others. I do not remember if we buried Poland. All I remember is returning from my own Christmas vacation and seeing Mark scraping out 60 fish carcasses from his big tanks, bawling his eyes out.
In his poem "Fish," Lawrence supposes that the fish thinks of him as "a many- fingered horror of daylight." That was what I was to Poland: a many-fingered horror of daylight. Whenever other people talk about their pets, whenever I think of getting a new pet of my own, my capacity for cruelty and negligence to fish overwhelms my desire. In that way, the saga of Poland stays with me.