Fall 2021

Aquarium: Container of Shame

by Sarah Anne Strickley

As the shiny balloons I bought more than a month ago for my daughter’s birthday amble on the ceiling like nervous strangers—she’ll never let me pop them, nor will they ever biodegrade—I wonder why the authorities don’t inform us that our party décor is immortal when we buy it. Shouldn’t there be a clause in the contract, the suggestion of a potentially devastating long-term arrangement around the corner? Warning: Mylar is forever. I think about the awful responsibility with which I have been saddled as a person in the world of “disposable” things—a person witnessing the staggering of bony polar bears, the disappearance of island paradises, the greedy appetites of California fires—and am tempted to shuttle back to the lazy mind-frame that makes it all possible in the first place. It’s not my problem; someone else will attend to the mess I have made with my purchases. 

But the someone else is my children and my children’s children and I think perhaps I have always known in my heart of hearts that the way we have been living is wrong. It has long felt insane to encase my trash in plastic and pay someone next to nothing to fling it into the ground. And yet I have let the way of things direct my hand. I have lived with the contradiction for a long while. I believe I first became acutely aware of it upon the occasion of the purchase of a pair of fire-bellied newts. I bought them while still a tender-hearted high school sophomore and sunk them into an old aquarium culled from basement clutter. My modest hope was that they’d last more than a month or two; instead, they graduated from high school with me, and then college, and then sloshed along with me to grad school. I did not know that fire-bellied newts were immortal. Did you?

Life is like that, of course, forever saddling us with commitments we are doomed to fail or doomed to endure for far too long. Early on, we have trouble letting go of these material disappointments. The disposal of our childhood collections of rocks and leaves strikes us as immoral; we are mortified by the loss of deflated party decor. But then we grow up and learn one of the more obvious truths of the modern American condition: Our lives are populated by countless, forgettable items. We ourselves are forgettable items. This is, unfortunately, our lot.

Chinese fire-bellied newts aren’t immortal, of course. They do die eventually. And, in this particular case, they died in an awful and disgusting way. And I’m reminded of them whenever I get to thinking of myself as a responsible, sensible person—vegetarian, taxpayer, doting mother of two. But before we reach the sad story of their demise, I must share a few highlights (lowlights?) from the lives of Christabell and Patsy—their names, God help me, and the names by which my longhaired high-school boyfriend and I referred to each other in our love letters. 

By way of context, I had purchased a dog for the human iteration of Patsy. A black lab puppy I’d located in the classifieds. And I suppose I was a little jealous that he got to be the owner of the dog. He was older than me and his father was a lenient divorcee who chain smoked and slipped him canned beers with dinner. Meanwhile, I was fenced in by the kind of parents who are convinced you will die in a fiery crash if they don’t terrify and stultify you into submission. I wanted real responsibility; the newts were the compromise.  

It was, I confess, a weird thing. Who owns a pair of pet newts? Lonely men and drug dealers, that’s who. But I was a teenaged girl with whimsical sensibilities. I imagined taking my pets to a creek bed a few times a week and letting them run around a bit, stretch their gummy legs. I thought they’d get to know and trust me. But Christabell and Patsy were the type of newts to sit motionless while errant bubbles slipped from their tiny snouts. They did not want to play or frolic. They ate and they shat. They seemed not to notice each other—or me.

Maybe they were bored, I thought. I installed a water slide in their tank. Some fake plants. I made a real-deal habitat. But they didn’t do jack. They floated at the bottom of the slide—like mylar balloons, letting the current ferry them around and around. When oh when would they finally die? I hated feeding them. They refused everything—even live bait—but the green turtle pellets the pet store had sold me, rancid rods that softened in the water. And they were inept eaters, trained from birth by harried Petco employees. I had to shove the food down in there while they went mad in the water, trying to eat my fingertips.

I knew they wouldn’t and couldn’t bite me. They were masses of amphibious cartilage. What harm could they do? And yet I feared them. They attacked my fingers—the deliverers of sustenance—with a vigor that suggested they believed themselves capable of devouring human flesh. They attacked and consumed the skins they shed—abject translucent tuxedos. I had to scoop out the sloughed tissue with my fingers, lest they savage each other over it. No, I did not like the newts. They had no affection, no feeling at all for me. And yet we persisted together. When I moved away from home, they floated along with me.

In my various dorm rooms in college, they were forced to reside in a smallish, octagonal tank, weighted at the bottom with neon orange and pink gravel, adorned with a plastic tree island. Once, while entertaining a hippie from my anthropology class, I lifted their tank to bring it near his face. He was so high that he couldn’t understand what I was telling him—newts, I said I have pet newts—and then he was wet from the neck down and Patsy and Christabell were splayed on the floor. I thought they might be dead, sucked through the sudden inexplicable hole in their tank and flung into the world, but they were only stunned.

Here is where I tell you that others—friends, relatives, strangers in bars—regularly campaigned for the newts’ demise. Flush them, they all said. Take them to the river and dump them. Throw them away. I did not care a whit for the newts, but nor could I persuade myself to let them go. I’d paid less than a dollar for each, but I was up to my eyeballs in moral investment. What would it mean about me if I tossed them away like trash? What would it mean about us? 

We—the newts and I—persisted and persisted. I took them with me when I moved into the woods to become a writer. I was living in a studio apartment that had once been a shed. I understood there would be challenges to my manners out there in the sticks. I considered it my writerly duty to isolate and condemn myself to rural theatrics: trash-strewing teens, gun demos, panty-drawer rodents. When a propane shortage sent me couch surfing back in the town I’d fled, I added a little food to the tank left the newts floating mute in their fake-plant forested water on the kitchen counter for three days. They should have been fine. When I returned, I discovered with great horror that Christabell had consumed one of Patsy’s eyeballs—right out of its socket!—but they had achieved a truce. They floated at opposite ends of the tank, a gravel mound between them.

Now what? The right thing to do was also the wrong thing to do. I felt strongly that I should euthanize them, end it. I wasn’t equipped to handle newt eye loss or newt cannibalism, nor was the local vet. I researched the appropriate methods and was prepared. They would die in a sandwich baggie filled with car exhaust. But I was uncomfortable with the idea of playing God. Who was I to decide it was time? And so I hastily cleaned the tank, separated the asshole newts with an impermeable obstacle, and fed them some turtle pellets. I’ll let God work it out, I thought. I didn’t believe in God—not even on a writerly level—but what else could I do? 

The newts persisted. They persisted and persisted—improbably—for another two months and then Patsy died. I don’t know precisely why. Newts can live into their 30s and the motherfuckers can regenerate a variety of body parts, including the lenses of their eyes. But it must have been the eye, right? It can’t be tenable, floating around with a fleshy gap in your head. Right? Or, maybe Christabell had maimed him in some deeper way. When I removed him from the water, he was as light as a golf pencil. He was nothing. A slip of algae. 

Christabell died a few days later. Again, I don’t know precisely why. I’d say she was lonely or guilt-ridden, if that felt right, but it doesn’t. She was feeling-less. She was a floating mouth and asshole. I buried them in little cardboard jewelry boxes out by the nonfunctioning, decorative well on the rental property. No ceremony. And I was glad, so glad, to be done with them. But I was also ashamed. I knew, even then, that I’d transgressed on a human, American level. 

What was my sin? I’d been unable to treat the newts as things, but I’d also been unable to treat them as pets. When things disappoint you, you get rid of them; you toss them into the invisible-to-you heap. With pets, it’s supposed to be different. You love them enough to endure the hardships of their persistence. Any entity that occupies a position between a thing and a pet is a recipe for the kind of late-breaking first-person, confessional you see here. Warning: Uncomfortable Grey Area Ahead. Have you ever purchased “sea monkeys” or those frogs that live in tiny plastic spheres? Have you ever thought a beta fish in a little glass ball would be a good idea? You too, then, are implicated. Damned. And no priest on the planet will absolve you. The only path forward is to allow it to pass from your awareness forever. Forget about it. But if you’re like me, you never will.  

Recently, my parents hauled a series of large plastic bins to my house. I had no memory of packing the bins, but there was my handwriting on the lids: Do not discard. Important papers. I was ashamed of the contradiction: If it was important enough to preserve, why had I abandoned it for twenty years? At some other point in my life, I may have been glad or even a smidgen excited about opening these time capsules of bygone high school days and taking a gander at the previous set of priorities they revealed. But now that I’m in my forties, a mother, a keeper of house, a ruthless self-editor, I have no patience for it. Why open them when I already know exactly what’s inside? Junk, shame. Love letters from human Patsy. Call me wolf dog, he’d said, before leaving me for a woman up North. Patsy makes me sound like I’m weak.  

Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018), and the novella, Sister (Summer Camp Publishing). She’s a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowship, an Ohio Arts grant, the Copper Nickel Editors’ Prize for Prose, and other honors. Her work has appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Witness, Harvard Review, Gulf Coast, The Southeast Review, The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Hotel Amerika, storySouth, and elsewhere. She’s an Assistant Professor of creative writing at the University of Louisville and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle.

Fall 2021