Our fish died.
I know that’s something of a trope in storytelling, but in this case, it happened, and it mattered, and I want to write about it. So here I am, in my politics newsletter that you pay for, unloading something that might be better suited for my diary.
His name was Arthur, and Arthur’s story actually starts with another fish, whose name was Thomas.
We got Thomas a couple of years ago at a carnival in North Fork, Long Island. My fiancé Phoebe and I were there because it’s one of our favorite places to go in the summer, and because we had been in a bit of a rough patch, and because when couples are stuck in a rut they revert to the things they know are good for them. North Fork is good for us.
In case you’re not familiar, North Fork is a beautiful 30-mile stretch of wineries, beaches and farms that sits near the east end of Long Island and is about a 90-minute drive from New York City. It is the upper echelon. In the summertime, it is a different planet than New York City. Fresh air, apple orchards, wineries, sunsets, beaches, the horizon, surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean. You can spend a whole day moving from one side of the island to the other, subsisting on nothing but apple pie, fresh fruit, wine, cheese and sheer joy, and in my and Phoebe’s case pretending you are wealthy, upper-class tourists. It’s such a fantastic place I honestly hesitate to even name it, for fear that you may end up overcrowding it the next time we want to go.
So we were in North Fork, finding some joy and trying not to get caught back up in one of those cycles we’d been in. And as we drove back to our little beachfront motel one night, we saw a giant, lit-up Ferris wheel, and then came upon a pop-up fair that we had never seen before. It was after dark, like in the movies, and there was the buzz of squealing children, the bells of prizes being won, the spray of water gun games, the roar of tiny roller coasters and the creaking of the Ferris wheel. Amidst all the madness was a stand with a series of small red cups, mini versions of what you might find in a college dorm room, stacked on stadium-seating style bleachers and sitting next to bags of goldfish.
Naturally, being the red-blooded, once-legendary beer-pong-playing-bro that I am, I decided this was a game that I could win. And, naturally, I was wrong. Every game in every direction at one of these fairs is rigged, but even knowing that isn’t enough to stop someone as stupid and immature as I am from trying. I bought a few ping pong balls and took a few shots and missed them all — though I came just close enough for my ego to be absolutely sure the next one would splash in the tiny cup.
Phoebe, I’m sure, was annoyed by this pathetic showing of blind arrogance, but she laughed and played along and rooted for me. And before I could overcome the rigged game, before I could use up all my tickets, something came over the carnie managing the goldfish beer pong game. I’m not sure if she was tired or if she intuited why we were there, or she really just felt like doing something nice — but she threw in the towel for me.
“Here,” she said, passing me a bag with a real live goldfish. “Just take him.”
This was not how it happens in the movies.
Any parent who has taken their child to a fair can probably tell you that these goldfish are not designed to survive; that by living in a bag at a fair and coming from God-knows-where they are likely doomed from the start. But the moment my hands touched that plastic bag with our soon-to-be Thomas, Phoebe and I were determined to keep him alive.
I should note, for the purposes of this story, that Phoebe is the kind of person whose eyes get runny when TV advertisements come on about adopting neglected dogs. She has a soft spot for all living things (except spiders, rats and cockroaches) and most things that aren’t alive, like tiny bowls or a pair of baby socks. Just this week, she presented me with a single, Tostitos scoop tortilla chip, insisting that I acknowledge how cute it was. I love this woman, and as I passed the bagged goldfish into her hands I realized that I might have just made a terrible mistake.
Phoebe held Thomas in his bag like a cracked egg she was trying to stop from spilling for the entire drive back to our motel, barely looking up from him, and by the time we got back, we were already discussing where he might reside in our Brooklyn apartment. After some quick Google searching, we learned that it was smart to get Thomas out of his bag as soon as we could, and in that moment — the moment we learned that this thing was going to need more than just us staring at him in his bag — we set off on our journey as fish parents.
Before we went to bed, we poured a couple of bottles of spring water we had bought at a gas station into an ice chest and then transferred Thomas into that. The next morning, we stole the ice chest from the hotel and Phoebe held it in her lap for the entire drive back to New York City. Thomas sloshed around as we cruised through the winding roads of North Fork, and then the potholes of the city, and eventually pulled into a PetSmart in Brooklyn.
“Oh boy,” the teenaged fish expert responded when I explained to him my situation. “Most of those goldfish don’t last very long. But we can give it a shot.”
Before I knew it, I was packing a hundred dollars of fish tank, filters, stress coat, quick start, fish medicine, and heaters into our car, wondering exactly what I’d just done. By the time we got Thomas home and into his tank, I think Phoebe and I were both feeling a little bit in over our heads. But we were bonding over the experience, reconnecting, and testing out our parenting skills without really admitting to each other that’s what we were doing.
I like to think Thomas was happy for those few weeks. Ironically, given what we know about goldfish memories, it’s hard for me to remember exactly how long he even lasted. I think it was a couple of months. He was free, getting to swim in 5 gallons of water rather than half a liter in a bag. He was fed well and spoken to often — acknowledged and appreciated. But he was a sickly fish, fighting off fin rot and white scales and eye bulges from his first day with us. We took to saying good morning and goodnight to him, to feeding him together, to running our fingers along the tank and believing he was communicating with us somehow.
Thomas didn’t last long, though, and everything everyone had said about fish like him ended up being true. It was a day-to-day battle to keep him alive, and by the time he turned belly-up in his tank, Phoebe and I were legitimately hurt. It wasn’t just that this little guy we snuck home from our revitalizing weekend getaway was now dead; it was that we’d failed him as parents and caregivers, unable to keep him from getting sick.
We can’t even take care of a goldfish, we said to each other.
We scooped Thomas out of the tank, wrapped him in a toilet paper coffin, turned on a song we thought he’d like and said a few nice things about him as we stood over the toilet. “He was a good fish from a good place,” was something like what I said. And then we flushed him, distraught and convinced our fish parenting days were over.
A few weeks later, we retold this story to my cousin Marco and his daughter Jovi during a visit they made to Brooklyn, stopping on the front and back ends of a trip they took to Italy, where Jovi’s coming of age present from her parents was a trip to explore some of her roots. I spent most of the visit trying to corrupt my young cousin with alcohol and rap music just as her dad Marco had corrupted me when I was her age, but she was already way smarter and more mature than I am, even now.
On one of those days during their week-long stay, when Phoebe and I were out to work, Marco decided he’d give us a use for the empty fish tank that was still sitting in the guest room-office in the back of our apartment. A fish parent himself as a kid, he went out to the local pet store, bought a fish, established the tank’s water, and dropped the newest member of our family inside. It was a really kind, thoughtful, beautiful gesture and my immediate thought when he surprised us with this fish was, “Oh, shit.”
Don’t worry, Marco assured me. He’s a betta fish — they’re a lot heartier than those wimpy goldfish.
Naturally, any concerns about our parenting skills quickly became an afterthought when Phoebe’s eyes lit up on seeing our new fish. We discussed a name and settled on Arthur — something regal, something powerful, something strong.
Betta fish are, and Arthur was too, truly handsome. No offense to Thomas, but they’re also a lot more interesting than goldfish. They are native to the murky, fresh waters of Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, and Arthur’s bloodline surely ran back to these exotic places I had never seen. They are said to have become pets more than 150 years ago when children would take them from rice paddies, bring them home in jars and place them with other betta fish — only to watch them spar. They’re also known as Siamese fighting fish, and they are not to be put in a tank with other betta fish, because they will do what their name implies.
Despite their grouchy reputations, after years of evolutionary advances and breeding, betta fish come equipped with giant, flowing fins that unfurl like curtains in the wind. They are not tough-looking, but elegant, even majestic, in the water.
They also do things: they puff up when they see themselves in a mirror, flexing out the fins around their mouths and making themselves look bigger than they are. They chase food and nose dive after pellets; they come up to the top of the water and gulp for air; and, in Arthur’s case, they do what I can only describe as celebratory laps around their tank at feeding time. According to PetMD, betta fish can recognize their owners, which is a fact I accepted, did no further research into, and still choose to believe.
If you spend any time meditating on them, and I would spend endless hours lost in thought watching this fish swim around, it’s easy to marvel at their creation. First of all, they’re living underwater. I think we kind of take that for granted; we say it as if it’s just a thing that is totally normal because thousands of other species do it. But it’s not normal, damnit, it’s mind boggling. He just swam around in there breathing underwater as if it was no big thing, and I envied this simple fact more than anything else.
More specific to betta fish, though, is just how human they are. Males, which Arthur was, are known to be devoted fathers. They protect their eggs by surrounding them in air bubbles and fighting off predators. They are notoriously curious, insatiably so, and Arthur was no exception. Any time a new item was put into his tank, or my fingers broke the plane of the water, he would immediately dart directly at whatever it was — nibbling and running into it and generally exploring it until he was satisfied it was no threat.
They are also diurnal, which means — like us — they are awake during the days and sleep at night, preferably in the dark and quiet. This is far more significant than you might imagine. It means that Arthur quickly became a part of our routines and that our schedules became naturally linked. The last thing Phoebe and I would do before we went to bed was “say goodnight to Arthur.” We’d examine him, checking for any sickness or distress, say a few words, Phoebe would sing to him, and then we’d turn his light out as we turned out the lights across the apartment.
He also became a part of my early mornings. At the time we got Arthur, I was launching Tangle. That marked the beginning of my 14 and 15-hour workdays, and it meant that I was waking up at 5 a.m. every day — and Arthur was waking up with me. We spent many mornings together, the sounds of running water in his tank the only sound in the house, as I pecked away on the computer trying to finish the newsletter before heading off to my day job as an editor. The whole way, all those mornings you received these newsletters, Arthur was right next to me, swimming around, blowing air bubbles, chasing food, doing his pre-meal happy dance.
Our first troubles with Arthur began just a few months after getting him. I believe, though I can’t be sure, that his first affliction was the unfortunately named fin rot. This disease is exactly what it sounds like it is, and as far as I can tell there is no human equivalent. Slowly watching Arthur’s body eat itself was a horrid thing for everyone, I’m sure for him most of all, but we managed to fight it off with the recommended medicine, constant water changes and patience.
Much like Thomas, Arthur would go through the wringer of fish diseases: Fin rot, popeye, dropsy, ich, all named so accurately as to make you squirm just saying them. It didn’t matter how strictly we followed the water changing regimens or even how closely we took all the advice from the experts. At one point, we resorted to filling his tank with gallons of spring water exclusively, convinced that it was the New York City tap water poisoning our poor Arthur. But even that didn’t work for long.
Marco was right, though. Arthur was hearty, tough, a fighter. He was no goldfish. Spates of your classic fish diseases were separated by weeks of decent health and good times, where he’d puff up if he saw a mirror, swim excitedly when it was time to be fed, and generally appear to be a happy and healthy fish. As we navigated his various ailments, we also tried different things — including removing some items from his tank that we thought might be sources of his persistent health obstacles.
As the pandemic set in, and we were spending full days living alongside Arthur, his tank was much less decorated than it had been even a few months before. We were down the rabbit hole of solutions now, trying new routes to get to our destination, and this one was the “limited items in the tank” concept.
During a family Zoom call, one of those early ones when Zoom was still cool and we all thought we were getting a two-week vacation and everyone was excited to chat and tell their various pandemic tales, my family asked about Arthur. When I walked the Zoom camera over to his tank to show him off, my older brother, being an older brother, asked incredulously if Arthur was a sociopath. “Where is his stuff?” they all howled. “Where are his rocks and plants and toys?”
“You don’t understand Arthur,” I snapped at everyone. “He’s sick, and he doesn’t like it when new things are dropped into the tank.”
But on the inside, I was embarrassed for Arthur, upset with how he’d been addressed, and suddenly doubting everything we had done up to that point. Maybe that’s it, I thought, maybe he needs more stuff, not less.
Over the next couple of months, we reintroduced some of the things he had had in his tank previously, and watched as Arthur went through his typical cycles of disease and health, oscillating just enough that every time he seemed perfectly healthy we braced ourselves for the inevitable turn for the worse. And, throughout the pandemic, he also got to meet some other people. Phoebe and I escaped once or twice from the city, going to an Airbnb upstate or to my hometown in Pennsylvania, and a cast of friends would step up to check in on him, all establishing their own little bonds with our little guy.
As the pandemic wore on, with so much time spent at home, Arthur became more and more a crucial member of our family. As silly as it sounds, this fish was one of the few living things outside each other that Phoebe and I got to interact with regularly — and we did not take him for granted. We projected our feelings onto him, explained to him that Kobe Bryant had died or the president got COVID-19, and generally leaned into watching, caring for him and observing him whenever we were teetering on the edge of insanity from the boredom.
Then, a couple months ago, Arthur stopped moving.
It wasn’t as though he was dead, he just looked as if he was in stasis. He didn’t dance or swim around when I played at the top of the water. He didn’t do laps when his food came or nose dive after pellets. Even if we committed the cardinal sin of tapping on the glass, he wouldn’t budge. He just sat near the top of the water, next to his heater, breathing, occasionally going for his food in a lackluster manner.
We tried everything — we checked the temperature of the opposite corner of the tank, convinced he was staying in the warmth. We adjusted the Ph balance of the water. We gave him medicine for all his past afflictions, and nothing brought him to life. We did water changes and rearranged his tank. We left him undisturbed. We disturbed him. Finally, Phoebe declared, “Arthur is depressed.”
This was, obviously, nonsense. “He’s a fish,” I told her in my serious voice. “He’s not depressed. We just have to figure out what’s wrong.” But she insisted. “Look at him!” she said. “He’s depressed!”
Feeling the need to nip this idea in the bud, to move on to the business of solving our problem and stop Phoebe’s heart from shattering, I did the same thing you would have done: I pulled out my phone and Googled “Can betta fish get depressed?” My expectation, of course, was to get one of those definitive Google results in bold letters at the top of the page: “No. Betta fish do not have the mental capacity to feel depression.”
Instead, and to my horror, I was confronted with an actual, serious, well-researched New York Times article entitled “Fish Depression Is Not A Joke.” Moments later, the exact same article appeared in the family group chat. The first example of a depressed fish in their story? A betta fish. Ugh.
“It turns out that not only can our gilled friends become depressed, but some scientists consider fish to be a promising animal model for developing anti-depressants,” The New York Times reported. New research, the article noted, “has been radically shifting the way that scientists think about fish cognition, building a case that pet and owner are not nearly as different as many assume.”
I wasn’t sure Phoebe could handle the news.
“What is it?” she insisted. “What does it say?” Her voice was at the octave where I knew she knew she was right. All I could do was laugh.
“I knew it!” she exclaimed. “We have to do something!”
And so we did. We decided physical ailments be damned, we were going to give Arthur the best fish tank he could imagine. We bought moss balls, fake versions of the paddy leaves found in his native rivers in Thailand, coconut leaves that naturally disintegrate and improve the health of the water, and even little fake lilies for him to hide under, as we were told he would enjoy sleeping with them.
At the same time, we also wanted to eliminate any chance he was fighting off a physical disease. The next day, I was going to my office to pick up a standing desk and a new chair, finally accepting that I’d be working from home for the foreseeable future. On the way back, Phoebe informed me that Arthur’s condition appeared to be worsening, and so I double-parked my car illegally on 2nd Avenue, jogged a half a mile to a PetSmart in Manhattan, and desperately explained my problems to another teenaged fish expert.
He handed me over a $45 bottle of fish medicine, assuring me it would cure anything. “Betta fish are hearty,” he said, the words echoing through my life.
Over the course of the next two weeks, we gave Arthur his medicine, introduced his native plants, and watched as he came back alive. It was, and I mean this honestly, remarkable. For three or four days he did not move — as dead as a fish could possibly look without making a full float. But we had saved him, revived him whether through medicine or the therapeutic introduction of items from his true home, and we had done it together.
Two weeks after his first dose of that medicine, Arthur seemed to be the best he had ever been. He was thriving, hiding in his fake grasses and sleeping under his lily pads, doing laps in the tank through his house, puffing up at the occasional mirror, an animated, strong, healthy, beautiful male betta fish. He was alive again.
By mid-December, Phoebe and I were the ones who needed a new tank.
We’d been quarantining in Brooklyn for nearly a year and, like Arthur and Thomas, experiencing fits of good and bad mental health. But we decided, with some planning and foresight, with a healthy fish and as the unhealthy parents, that we were going to safely exit the city for a few weeks — a couple of weeks in upstate New York, surrounded by trees, and then a few weeks in rural West Texas, surrounded by cacti.
To prepare for the trip, I went a little overboard. I got a timer for Arthur’s light, a webcam to check in on him, and an automatic feeder that would spit out some pellets for him twice a day. I also paid a friend to check in occasionally, water our plants, and give our fish some of the attention that he needed.
The first couple of weeks were fine. We’d turn on the webcam, laughing to ourselves every time at the absurdity of it all, and see him swimming around in his tank, happily chasing food or bubbles or just sliding between the tall grass and alongside his moss balls.
On our way from upstate New York to Texas, we stopped in at our apartment to pick up a few things. When we arrived, Arthur came out from his house and swam his laps and, seemingly, recognized us and welcomed us home the way a golden retriever might. We examined him and, to our content, found him looking absolutely, perfectly fine.
The next morning, as we re-packed the car and braced ourselves for an attempt at getting to Texas in two days, I dropped a few pellets into Arthur’s tank. But when the food fell past his face, he did not snatch them up as he normally does. He didn’t nose dive to the bottom of the tank to chase them and he didn’t peruse the floor to find the food. Instead, he just sat there, letting the food sit in front of his nose, without eating.
My stomach dropped. After two years as a fish dad, few things had been ingrained as much in my mind as this simple rule: nothing is a stronger indication of poor fish health than a fish not eating, and this was — despite all the ailments — the first time I’d ever seen Arthur not go after his food.
But we had no time to do anything, no time to examine him, no time to figure out what was wrong. Instead, we left, already a bit behind schedule, saying our goodbyes and insisting to him that he eat. It was the last time we’d see him in person.
Over the next few days, Arthur appeared sporadically on our webcam, swimming around, though without his usual spunk. By the time we got to Texas, he was harder to find in the tank, and a few days after we arrived I was on a certifiable cold streak: I had opened the webcam app four, five or six times without seeing him once. We began to fear the worst.
After being away for about a week, we asked a friend to stop by and check in on Arthur. His first visit, like our exit, was a bit rushed. But a cursory glance at the tank, and after dropping some food in, did not produce an appearance. In our expansive love for the dear fish we had created innumerable hiding places in his tank, so this wasn’t a guarantee of any bad news so much as it was an unsettling and less-than-encouraging development.
After a few more days of zero appearances on the webcam, we sent the same friend back again, with enough time to complete a thorough investigation of the tank.
He shined a light into Arthur’s home, ruffled the grass, picked up the house, all with no luck. He tapped on the glass, looked all around the floor of the tank, called his name and dropped food in.
2,000 miles away, Phoebe and I watched from a small adobe house in the middle of the desert, our eyes glued to FaceTime as we explored the tank together. “What about the shell?” someone suggested. And with that, our friend picked up the single shell in the tank and turned it over, only to discover Arthur, curled up inside, taking his eternal rest.
That he had made it into the shell to die was remarkable enough to me on its own. But that he had picked that shell, the shell Phoebe had collected off the shores of Cape Cod, plucked at all those parts of my brain that can’t help but wonder.
When we first met, Cape Cod was one of the places Phoebe and I bonded over immediately — she had gone every year since she was a baby, not missing a single summer without stepping onto the beaches of Wellfleet. Until coronavirus.
For me, the Cape had its own personal meaning. My dad had grown up learning to sail in Chatham, my grandmother had owned a property there with a tiny little boathouse on it, and my mom’s sister had lived on the Cape for much of her adult life. Our families each had their own ties to this place, and Phoebe and I both had childhoods full of Cape Cod memories. After we started dating, I got to reconnect with the Cape, joining Phoebe’s family for their summer trips there together. We each spent much of the rest of the year looking forward to our week on the Cape eating fried clam strips, sitting on the beach or wading through one of its unbeatable bays.
Of course, Cape Cod was a distant memory by January of 2021, a place we were unsure when we’d see next, maybe the worst of all the privileged casualties from the pandemic. And here was our fish, the fish we had projected so much onto over the 18 craziest months either of us had ever lived through, curled up inside the one piece of his tank that represented part of what we’d lost, what we were longing for, and what we were attempting to rediscover, as we left him behind in our little Brooklyn apartment.
Over FaceTime, our friend served as a pallbearer, pastor, diener and grievance counselor. Just as we had with Thomas, he wrapped Arthur in a toilet paper shroud and our friend stood in the bathroom with him waiting for the ceremonial flush. The three of us each took a moment to say a word, another godforsaken remote event in this life that should have happened in person, and then we flushed him down the toilet. Phoebe notified our families with the following text message:
It is with an extremely heavy heart that I share the passing of our beloved fish Arthur. Arthur had struggled with depression on and off the last couple months, and though we were hopeful after improvement in recent weeks, it seems that he had finally succumbed to the oppressive loneliness. His father, Isaac, and I cannot help but imagine an alternate world where we had not left him at such a crucial moment. Was the prospect of weeks of solitude too daunting? Could we have stepped in? Could we have saved him? We find small solace in the fact that Arthur's body was discovered in a seashell from Cape Cod, given to him just this summer, a symbol that in his last moments he was tucked away, where he had always felt safest. Arthur is preceded in death by his step-brother Thomas, and survived by his mother Phoebe and father Isaac. His memory will forever be a joy.
I’m not sure what I said on that call, but here’s what I’d like to say now: Arthur was a good fish. He was born of love. He came into our lives as a product of two people who cared deeply about each other stepping towards one another, and he was gifted to us by a cousin who makes a habit out of going out of his way to do nice things.
He was strong, tough, handsome and surely would have thrived in his rough, native rivers. He lived through a lot; a Democratic primary, coronavirus, everything that was the year 2020, and the most consequential election of our time. He felt like a steadfast companion as I built this thing I care so deeply about, and in his absence, our home feels a bit emptier and quieter than it was before — even if he himself never made any noise.
It’s been a long 11 months, and most of us have — by now — lost people or things or jobs far more substantial than a betta fish. But Arthur had an impact, touching many, and he’ll forever remain formative in my memories of this historic time. I like to think that now, somewhere, our little fish is resting peacefully, wrapped up in the warmth of a Cape Cod summer, sliding through the tall grass of better days.
- The U.S. Senate pushed President Biden’s $1.9 trillion dollar stimulus package ahead this morning, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote to advance the bill. However, the Senate also agreed to Republican Joni Ernst’s amendment that would prevent any minimum wage increase during the pandemic, dealing a significant blow to hopes of raising the federal minimum wage to $15. (The New York Times, subscription)
- The 56-member Problem Solvers Caucus is calling on Congress to pass a standalone, $160 billion bill to address vaccine distribution. (Politico)
- The U.S. economy added 43,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate dipped to 6.3%. (The Associated Press)
- Bipartisan support is emerging for a new set of laws to address domestic terrorism in the United States, including legislation that “would aim to bring the prosecution of such crimes into parity with laws targeting terrorism that originates overseas.” (The Washington Post, subscription)
- With another week of positive trends, it’s safe to say the pandemic is in a tenuous retreat. Now, experts are hoping vaccine distribution can ramp up before new strains of the virus wreak more havoc. (The Atlantic)
- Smartmatic, the voting systems company, filed a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell for their claims that it was used to rig the 2020 election. (CNN)
Obviously, this isn’t your typical Tangle newsletter. But I appreciate you giving me some space to write, and — if you made it this far — for reading. Every now and then, it feels okay to step outside of politics, and I hope you enjoy the occasional change of pace. If you enjoyed this edition, please feel free to forward it along to some friends and ask them to subscribe to Tangle. They can do that, and read past editions, by going here: