Karma’s a bitch. Here I was lacking a plan, so I took the easy path. And where did it lead me? Hell. Specifically, pet hell.
I’ll explain. Kate recently turned six. And Mark was away for work the 10 days before her birthday. So I planned the party, and shopped for the pinata, and food, and decorations. I came up with activities for the kids, hired a magician, attempted to gussy up our yard. I scoured social media outlets, cookbooks, and the Inter-Web for the most succulent, moist chocolate cake recipe in all the land.
Then one night, toiling over a hot laptop and reviewing my gift purchases on Amazon, I lamented that I hadn’t ordered a special present for Kate. So I emailed Mark.
“What do you say we buy her a fish?” I suggested. “I mean, just write a promissory note, then we can all go together and she can pick it out.”
From Down Under, hours later, Mark received the email and shot back, “Great idea.”
I brushed my hands together with the smug satisfaction of a mother who had in fact done it all. Easiest. Present. Ever.
That must’ve been when the gods looked down at me and shared belly laugh. “Foolish mother!” they chortled. “She thinks it’ll be easy, does she?”
Then, to put my all my perfect party planning to shame—to show how powerless I truly was—they cursed me with overcast weather on the day of the party. It’d been in the low 80s and gloriously sunny for over a week, but the day of the party—the outdoor party in our backyard—was bleak and chilly. The Bay Area’s legendary Indian Summer let me down.
Had I only known that the gathering of gray clouds that day was a foreshadowing. Oh, the party went off without a hitch, weather aside. But the next day we piled into the car, the girls chanting “Fish! Fish! Fish!” and Mark and I smiling at each other from the front seats, smug with the sweet knowledge that we were doing something wonderful to enrich our darling nuclear family.
Hey, we were hardly buying the kids a Labrador Retriever. But, you know, baby steps.
Mark had sussed out fish stores online and took us to a place two towns over that was supposed to be “the best.” The squat, windowless building was covered with a mural of tropical fish, and I delightedly sing-songed to the girls as we pulled up, “Guess which place we’re going to?”
It was all so thrilling and wonderful. I took a history-capturing photo of Kate, arms and legs stretched wide, in front of the mural before we entered the building. Mark gallantly held the door open for me and I smiled as I slipped in. A happy young family on our way to add a fishy friend to our ranks.
Inside, the walls gleamed with rows of brightly lit tanks. Within them stirred all manner of colorful, flowy-finned fishies with green sea grasses swaying. The girls ran from one tank to the next. “Nemo!” Paige squealed. “Whoa, look at these guys!” Kate yelped peering into a tank of small silvery fish glowing with purple iridescence. “I want them!”
While the kids and I explored deeper into the store’s back rooms, Mark got the attention of a young Asian employee—a collegiate tattooed fish geek—who we eventually met up with at the front of the shop. I pulled out a scrap of paper from my purse and recited to her the amount of space we had for a tank. (I had every detail figured out.)
Okay, so tanks. Fish Geek Girl started reeling off statistics about cubic something-or-others of water, and pointed to a wall full of spankin’ new, unoccupied fish homes. “This one’s a little smaller. It needs a light, but it’s got the filter built in. Now for a little more you can get this larger tank, with the light and the filter, but the lid is sold separately. This one is a kit and where you think it would be the best deal, you’re actually better off buying a light from these people, and a filter which will last you three to four years, then get the tank over here from this other vendor but they are totally compatible—as long as you make sure you’re getting everything in the M Series.”
The wall of tanks started to swirl together before me. Like fly-vision I was seeing hundreds of identical images. Despite how dazzlingly confusing just picking a tank was, there also seemed to be some digital ticker tape of the cost of all this flashing behind Fish Geek’s head. The numbers multiplied the more she talked.
At this rate we’d get one goldfish and have to decide whether it was Kate or Paige who we could send to college. I was starting to wonder whether we should’ve gotten pre-approved for a loan before entering the fish store.
I swallowed hard and looked over at Mark. Usually when my brain starts short-circuiting his is still going strong. (One of the many benefits of having him around so much.) Alas, turns out he wasn’t even tuned it. Instead he was preventing Paige from reaching into a tank to grab Nemo.
“Okay, uh, well that is all good to know,” I stammered. “Maybe you could tell us a bit about maintenance?”
“Well, depending on which tank you get [of course!] you’ll have to change half the water in the tank bi-weekly or one-third of the water weekly.” This was turning into a math word problem. I was afraid she was about to ask me how fast the train was traveling.
Then Little Miss Fish Facts moved across the room to Vannah her arms alongside a display of pumps. “Now with these pumps you can…”
I was growing dizzy. I felt like if there was just a window I could look out, I could somehow steady myself. If it’s possible to get sea sick in a fish store, I was.
Water changes? Filters? Lights? Thermometers? Whatever happened to those goldfish that you won in a plastic bag at the carnival?
Oh wait… I remember. After short stints as “pets” they went belly up. Those simple fish-bowl fish never lasted very long, maybe because they needed confusing costly contraptions to keep them going. Eventually they all experienced tragic toilet-borne funerals.
Standing in that store I felt the way I did when I almost bought a Honda Accord. It was when Mark and I were dating, and I needed a reliable car to get me to a new, far-flung job. I’d gotten so far as to select the color, interior, and options, and they were pulling my new ride up to the showroom from an off-site parking lot.
But I panicked. Suddenly a Honda Accord seemed like the most wretchedly safe, generic, boring commuter-mobile I could ever own. It was like if I bought that car I would be giving up my personality altogether. Every ounce of me-ness would be whitewashed with soul-robbing sensibility. There was no way I could go through with it. But I also couldn’t bring myself to share my change of heart with the super high-pressure salesman. So I whispered to Mark, “Uh, I can’t do this. Tell them no.”
I think he whispered back something along the lines of, “You fucking tell them! I’m not going to tell them!”
But anyway, this fish thing was different. We were in it together. I touched the arm of Fish Girl before she launched into a lecture on solar-powered filters and said, “I think we need a minute.”
Then I turned to Mark and said, “Let’s get out of here. This is insane! Maybe at that other place we can get a frog or something. Something easier to deal with.”
Fast-forward to Pet Store #2, where we met a tortoise. It was darling! And seemed so right for us in so many ways. The girls could take him out of his tank and play with him on the floor. Can you do that with a fish? Noooo. Plus, no filters! No water to change! No temperatures to fret over!
This all sounded great. Then the male equivalent of Fish Geek Girl informed us, “Now, these tortoises live to be 80 to 100 years old. Some breeds get to be 100—even 120.”
Okay, so this was the opposite end of the toilet-funeral spectrum. Instead of having to comfort the girls about the death of their fish some day, Mark and I would be moving this turtle to a nursing home with us. Paige’s grandchildren would be playing with that damn, un-killable pet.
I’m sorry, but even a truncated 70-year turtle existence was way, way too long.
But then, to really wrench at our heart strings the Reptile Dude plucks a couple itty bitty baby tortoises out of a tank. Suddenly every kid in the store was crowded around us. They were ADORABLE. I don’t care how long these little guys live, I wanted one. I wanted two!
“Now these fellas grow to be about twice the size of Martin over there,” he said, nodding his head towards an enormous tank. The turtle inside looked to be about the size of a bear cub. These turtles would require their own bedrooms one day.
But they were cute! I was undeterred.
Then Our Knowledgeable Salesperson starts in on how the tortoises eat table scraps—the ends of carrots, wilted lettuce, withered cucumbers. They were like living compost heaps. What could be greener? What could be easier? Turns out I have a refrigerator FULL OF TURTLE FOOD on any given day. What dumb luck!
As Kate and Paige acted proprietary with the wee turtles the other store-kids were pawing at, Reptile Ron went on. “Now these little guys have shells that are forming still. So you’ll need to bathe them in water just about up to their shell lines for 20 minutes a day. But only for the first two to three years.”
Did he really just say “ONLY for the first two to three YEARS?”
I nearly kicked the man in the crotch. I didn’t manage to get my own children into the bath every day for their first two to three years.
I snatched those darling turtles out of the girls’ hands and plopped them back in their tank. Not an option.
But I never say die. There must be a perfect pet somewhere in this huge store. What else could he show us?
Next up, a variety of small, darling frogs. They really were cute. Brightly colored teensy things, hopping around in little mossy, leafy fairy realms. I cut to the chase. “Talk to me about maintenance. Gear. Feedings. Baths.”
“Well, you have to spray water in their tanks every day. They need the moisture,” he started. “And they eat crickets…”
“Live crickets?” I interrupted.
“Uh-huh,” he said. Then he gently explained that their “live food needs” would require us to drive to the pet store once a week, just to keep us in crickets. He failed to mention how the hell you got the crickets into the tank. And the potentially-traumatizing Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom experience of watching the wee frogs devour their dinner.
“And how often do you feed them these crickets?” I ventured.
“Every day,” he replied cautiously.
And really, I know it shouldn’t be so shocking to think that a living thing needs to eat every day, but I was horrified. Disgusted even. Every day? For the love of God, no.
I tugged on Mark’s sleeve. “Uh, I think we need to go home,” I whispered. “Regroup. Do some research. Sell the girls on a pet rock maybe.”
And so, we left. Somehow we got the girls into the car without them screaming, whining, throwing wild tantrums. Somehow they weren’t hurling accusations at us of being bad, lying parents who’d promised to buy them a pet. It was one of those eery times when the kids just seemed to go with the flow. They did what we needed them to do.
“We need some time to think about what the best choice is for us,” Mark said as he clipped them into their car seats. We looked at each other over the roof of the car before getting in, and rolled our eyes. What the HELL had we gotten ourselves into?
When we got home it was time for dinner. Late really. And once we’d cooked, and eaten, and cleaned up the dishes, we needed to start reading the kids their bedtime books. So we washed their hands and faces, brushed their teeth and hair, and got them into bed. There would be plenty of time for a bath tomorrow.
Then Mark and I went on with our evening, secure in the fact that—despite their state of compromised cleanliness—we didn’t have to worry that without having had a bath the girls’ shells might dry out, shrivel up, or crack. These human pets? So easy. Even if when they woke up in the morning we would have to feed them all over again.