I used to sleep with four stuffed fish. Each of them had different colors, a different shape to their fins, and eyes that shined like gems even in the twilight of bedtime.
They were all from Sarasota, Florida, but I like to think they were all from some tropical locale like Australia or New Zealand or Costa Rica. Or maybe they were from somewhere in the Caribbean or just visiting from the Bahamas. Wherever they were from, they were stunning examples of the beautiful pupils in the deep, dark oceans. Not only were they strikingly detailed, but as a crafted toy—for lack of better word—they were remarkable.
It’s distressing now that I can’t remember a single one of their names. I can see them on my sheets, scattered across my floor, and even resting on the sill of my wide basement window. I can see them in my loft, playing in fleece blankets and conversing with bubbles and still, quiet communication.
But I can’t remember their names.
I feel like I’ve lived some bizarre one-night-stand with my stuffed animals. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am—err, fish—and out the door of my memory bank. Of course, back when I had the fish, a one-night-stand was not a concept I was familiar with, nor one that crossed my mind when I would cuddle up next to them beneath a giant comforter or amidst a nest of pillows.
Still, it’s oddly painful and slightly disconcerting that, regardless of the years we spent together, I cannot remember their names.
One was light yellow with blue eyes and a tail that was flimsy and sinewy like a strand of fiber optic lights. She was the pretty one, I remember that. She had a fin on her back like a row of lilacs growing out of her spine, and if you wanted to, you could smell them and make believe that everything was calm, was comforting, that everything around you was okay.
She was like a good friend or nice bath in that way.
There was another, like a clown fish. Orange and white bands that moved like waves across his tummy and over his tail. He was small, but I know he was feisty. If you asked me then, I would have told you that he had a sailor’s mouth and a bad habit of smoking seaweed in the depths of deep ocean trenches. Still, he was good natured—the fish you loved because it was the right thing to do and you couldn’t help but do so. His tail was stitched up, and my dad would tell me how he barely escaped the jaws of that terrible shark.
But I was smarter than that; our golden retriever could barely keep her head above water, let alone swim with all the aggression and speed of a the sea’s greatest predator.
The red one was small. A green iris and blazing, burning body. He was like Christmas without the family tension. But small, yes, he was the littlest of them all and he slipped around those silky sheets like a minnow wriggling out of your hands. He was the youngest, of course, the one that pretty fish and smoking fish put up with because they had to. I suppose they pitied him too, what with the missing fin.
He was smart. He was quick and cunning and witty and could make you laugh like no one else at home or at school ever could. But shy, yes, so very shy and quiet. The introvert, the hidden and the hiding.
The last of the four was the first of the bunch. Of course, he was my favorite, and I don’t think I could have asked for more beautiful bed-mate.
He was blue, bluer than the water he adventured in, bluer than any reef he swam over, bluer than the sky he peeked up at when taking a quick breath above the surface. His scales shimmered like rain on a pavement when the light baked his sides. His eyes were orange, orange like the thin pipes of burnt ochre that curved around his fins and ran from his face to his tail.
He was fire. He kept me warm at night.
And it’s funny, yes, the way a fish can keep you warm, when they’re the ones who sleep in the cold oceans and beneath the waxing and waning and crashing tide. How a creature that comes from water, comes from anti-fire, is capable of enveloping you in a sense of soothing heat.
I suppose that heat is not really physical warmth, but rather the connection that imbues a sense of love and presence into the space between your hugs.
It’s unfortunate to use a word like that when even his name escapes me.
I remember the little girl that picked that fish out of the Garage Sale bin.
I remember the way her blond hair was disheveled and dirty and matted. I remember the white t-shirt that wasn’t actually white anymore, but still partially maintained the face of Barbie and a small speech bubble that said “Too Cool for You! Barbie!” with a little heart that could have been pink or purple or brown, depending on the way the sun hit the iron-on design.
Her face is dirty too. Of course it is.
But her hands are spotless, and almost seem to glow white hot in the sun of an early Saturday morning.
She is standing next to her brother, who is much younger and cares much less about the garage sale and more about the bugs that litter our driveway, crawling in and out of leaves and acorns and twigs.
I don’t think I thought much of her at first, but I know I couldn’t take my eyes off of her when I saw her pick the blue-orange fish from the animal bin and hug it close to that filthy t-shirt.
“She’s so pretty!” the little girl yells. “She’s so pretty and she’s going to be so happy.”
I whisper to no one that she is a he.
“She’s going to be so happy.”
As they weave through tables of knick-knacks and clothing we’ve all outgrown, they make their way to the register—a tackle box that looks all kinds of official—and hand me a quarter.
The face of Thomas Jefferson is stoic and I know that I do not smile as the little girl holds him out before me, my fish in her other hand.
“She’s going to be mine and we’re going to be so happy.”
“He might not like you calling him she or her,” I say.
“She. Her. She. Her. She’s mine now.”
My neck is hot and all I want to do is throw her quarter on the ground and tell her that he’s not for sale, that I’ve changed my mind, that I guess I haven’t grown up after all.
She walks away with her new fish and I stand there with tears in my eyes because he should still be mine. He should still be there in the middle of my blankets, floating among the waves of pillows and the wake of a tossing and turning boy who’s too grown up to sleep with toys.
Thinking back, I guess she just needed him more, that the fish had so much more purpose for her than he had left for me.
I think, that maybe I was just in love with that fish because that’s what I knew at that time, what felt comfortable, what felt right.
But that thought will never extinguish the burning desire to just have him back, of that I am sure.
I just miss him, you know?
I just want things to go back to that moment when he is swimming up the currents of sheets and blankets and duvets and throw pillows and warm, fuzzy feelings.
I just want to be happy with that goddamned fish and I don’t want anyone else to have him because we are so happy together even when I’m too old to play with stuffed animals, to talk to my toys.
I just want things to be like they were and I wonder if there’s anything wrong with that?
I wonder and I shout and I cry because I just want someone to answer me when I ask: Why? Why? WHY?
But in my mind, in that memory of that little girl walking to her car and throwing her new friend into the air and holding her close, my Mom comes out from the garage and yells toward her and her mother and her brother. And the little girl looks back and says “me?”
And mom says: “Don’t you have a name for her?”
Little Dirty Girl looks down and thinks out loud: “ummmmmm”
“Maybe you can call her Coral?” and the little girl is giddy with glee.
Mom looks back at me and she winks. “There. Now, whenever you need to know that things are okay, you’ll have the knowledge that your fish, your Coral, is somewhere safe, being loved, and he will think of you every his name is used.”
I wonder now if I’ll ever see that fish again, if he’ll somehow find his back through the streams and rivers and channels and back into my little, tiny land where fish can talk and you don’t have to grow up. Mostly, I just want. Mostly, I just think we’d be happier than that damn disheveled girl and her dirty face.
Mostly, I think of me and my Coral.
His name was Coral.