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Andrew called me to help him move the 40-gallon aquarium he’d bought the week after his dad died. Not like I’m somebody with any upper body strength, but it was too big for him to move by himself. Plus I’m sort of his new girlfriend, so I guess I felt obligated.
“What are you gonna put in here?” I asked, as we hefted the glass case onto the wooden shelf behind his couch. It thumped and I pushed it into place with my hip.
“Fish,” he said, taking the bottom of his flannel shirt and wiping the fingerprints off the glass.
“Har har,” I said. “What kind though?”
I knew he didn’t really know anything about fish, but I’d found some tabs open on his computer where he’d been reading about different varieties; which ones could be put together, which ones lived the longest.
“No goldfish,” I said, “they’re not worth it.”
The last thing Andrew needed was a bunch of fish dying left and right, what with his dad and all.
“What about plants?” I asked. “You wanna get some seaweed in there? Or one of those little castles the fish can swim in and out of?”
Andrew stared into the glass case for a while and I didn’t know if he was envisioning what he wanted it to look like, or thinking about his dad, put into a box. They hadn’t exactly been close. And even when somebody’s been sick for a long time, it still must feel like a shock.
“No castles,” he said, “but maybe one of those deep sea divers, the ones with the masks and air tanks.”
“And a treasure chest, with gold?”
“Maybe,” he said.
Andrew hasn’t wanted to make decisions about anything lately, so at least the fish were a start.
I would have probably gone home after that, given Andrew some space, but I hung around for a little bit, not knowing if there were new girlfriend duties I was supposed to do or what. It’s hard when you’ve been friends with somebody for seven years but then make out with them at Tito’s twenty-eighth birthday party a few weeks ago and everything becomes kind of a grey area.
Andrew suggested we go to the fish supply place, so we did.
“What about this one?” I pointed at a long white one with brown splotches.
Four long rows of cases were all lit up, fish swirling in and out of fake coral, grazing their fins over bright blue pebbles. Two little girls scurried up and pressed their noses to the glass of a case of clownfish next to us.
Andrew continued walking to the end of the row, stopping at the case labeled Dwarf Gourami.
“I read that these are very hearty,” he said.
“What would you name them?”
He pointed to three bluish ones, “Skeletor, Rex, Maximus.” He slipped his warm hand into mine, “You want to name one?”
I wanted to suggest “Robert” and see what reaction he’d have to hearing his dad’s name, but I also knew better. I pointed toward one with a red tail. “Bernice,” I said, “’cause you never hear that name anymore.”
He pressed his chest against my shoulder briefly and then went to the aisle with cleaning nets and water treatment solutions.
We got six fish, two cleaning nets, some purple anemone-looking plants, and a little deep sea diver figurine, which Andrew held in his lap on the ride home. I’ve been doing most of the driving for us. My nerves are better in San Francisco traffic, and I feel like it’s the least I can do. I guess I do work in hospitality, but it’s usually writing contracts, not chauffeuring. I leave that to the professionals.
Andrew ran his fingers over the diver’s air tank, and I made sure the fish weren’t jostling too much on the floorboard. I could tell he was deep in thought ’cause his eyebrows were knit together, rising up toward his mass of black hair. When I first met him I thought he looked like Prince Eric from the animated version of The Little Mermaid. Though now he has the beginnings of a patchy beard growing, which isn’t exactly princely.
“What about the last two?” I asked.
“The last two?” He dissolved from his daze.
“Yeah, the last two fish need names.”
“You mean Mary Kate and Ashley?” he looked at me with some mischief and I bit my tongue.
“What?” he said, squeezing my knee.
“Nothing, it’s just,” I started, “I can’t just bust your balls now. I have to care about those balls.”
“Oh my god,” he stifled a smirk and shook his head like, what have I gotten myself into. Mostly I just wanted to get some kind of rise out of him, to make sure he was still there.
We unloaded the supplies and treated the water and for a long time Andrew stared, mesmerized by the anemones, watching them swish around in the water.
“Will they get bored?” Andrew asked.
“I don’t think fish get bored,” I said.
He’d plunked the deep sea diver in last, letting it fumble into the water, its metallic mask reflecting little bubbles as it descended. The tiny figurine promising to keep watch over all the tank’s goings on.
A couple doors down the neighbors were having a party and it sounded like a good one judging from all the spontaneous “woooo!”s and bass drops. There’s no noise insulation in these old buildings.
It didn’t feel right to leave Andrew alone, so I peeled off my clothes and pulled a t-shirt out of his dresser drawer, a green one from our old volleyball rec league. I slid into Andrew’s bed, his bedroom door cracked enough that I could see his profile looking into the case, lit by the glassy glow. For a long time he didn’t move. Just sat there in a greenish illumination silently communing as the fish circled. I wondered if this was how all our Saturday nights were going to go.
I stayed over but we didn’t have sex. We’re still navigating that area between friendship and whatever’s outside of friendship. It’s weird. Everybody tells me that there are tons of romantic comedies about friends who get involved; like it’s a normal thing. Yeah, I want to say, but there are also eight Fast & Furious movies. That doesn’t mean everybody’s out there stealing cars. None of these movies are documentaries.
“Why now?” Andrew rolled over, pointed to me and then him, and propped his head on his arm.
The room was already filled with light; it was definitely daytime.
“You were always with other girls before,” I said, which is not untrue, but maybe the real reason is that I always feel kind of attracted to people I feel sorry for. Like somehow my brain conflates compassion and passion. It’s hard to know. The night of Tito’s party he’d looked so pathetic, his long sweater sleeves covering most of his hands. He seemed fragile, peeling the labels off beer bottle after beer bottle, trying to focus on anything other than who out there might be dying. On the back patio I’d felt compelled to wrap my arms around him, to press my lips to his. And then he kissed me urgently, like it was an emergency. Like it might never happen again.
“I mean, I liked you, like, five years ago. Like, really liked you.”
“You can like me now too,” I said.
We went out for coffee, to the pretentious coffee shop with the tile walls, instead of the Starbucks.
“I should learn how to bake bread,” Andrew said, pressing the plastic to-go lid firmly to his cup.
“I think it’s mostly just a lot of waiting around,” I said. “And you gotta get up early.”
“Right, never mind, I need my beauty sleep.”
We walked hand in hand up to Alamo Square, which was surprisingly empty for how nice a day it was, holding our coffees and watching a couple young moms push their strollers. Andrew sprawled out in the grass. I put my hand down first to make sure it wasn’t wet before I sat; you can’t always trust the look of grass.
“So,” I started, “how did things go last weekend?”
Andrew hadn’t told me much about the funeral, except that it wasn’t a funeral, not in the traditional sense. Andrew’s dad was a private man up until the end, and past it. His request was to be put into the ground without a big fuss – he didn’t even want any songs, which seemed like the saddest part to me. I at least want a song to play me out at the end.
“Honestly, he looked healthier than he had in years. The makeup people did a good job.”
“I wonder if they have any YouTube tutorials,” I said.
Andrew adjusted himself to lay his head on my extended legs. I pulled a dandelion out of the ground and peeled its leaves and petals off one by one.
“Last time I came to this park I was on a date,” Andrew said. “It didn’t go well. She asked how many girls I’d slept with.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Well, that was your mistake right there,” I said. “For accuracy’s sake though, how many are we talking about?”
“You really like girls, don’t ya?”
“It’s my curse.”
For a while we sat there like that. A woman in hot pink running tights jogged by, but Andrew stayed staring at the sky.
“You know the last thing he said to me?”
He didn’t say it, but I knew he was talking about his dad.
“‘Take care’,” Andrew shook his head, scratched his eyebrow. “Like I was just anybody, like I was a stranger.”
I put my hand on his, gently, wanting to show him he wasn’t.
“People say things,” I said.
Later in the week Andrew pulled up a photo of us from years ago at a toga party.
“Look what I found,” he said, turning his computer screen toward me. I leaned in, putting my hand on his shoulder to get a closer look. In the photo Andrew was wrapped in a safety-pinned bedsheet, holding a solo cup. I had golden leaves in my hair.
I remembered being embarrassed that night when he’d come to pick me up because he told me I should probably change – he could see my black underwear through my white dress.
“That was forever ago,” I said.
“That was when you had a big thing for Tyler Dieckmann.”
“Yeah, well, he never saw me naked.”
Andrew got up and pulled out the box of fish food and sprinkled the flakes over the top of the water. We threw all the Thai food takeout containers away and wiped down Andrew’s kitchen counters and went into his room. We lay in bed and I wondered how much we were going through the motions we knew, holding each other the way we’d held others. Pretending there wasn’t oddness on the periphery of friendship. Was this how it always was for him? Was I different? It’s strange when you’ve known someone so long, but their body is a foreign object. Seen but not touched, like the fish in the tank. I tried to envision Andrew that way, with scales instead of ab muscles, gills instead of ears. I pressed my palms to him, convinced he felt cold and smooth, with a heart barely pumping blood. His eyes were closed, but I imagined what they’d be like as wide unblinking discs. I ran my fingers over his hair, certain that it felt like a dorsal fin. Here was someone I barely knew at all.
“Is this okay?” he asked, and I nodded, pulling the comforter over us like we were going underwater.
Sometime after four a.m. a loud burst followed by the sound of rushing water woke us up. Andrew jolted, his hand knocking into the lamp on his nightstand, and I grasped for my tank top. In the middle of the living room a puddle of water expanded and gravel rained down from the wooden shelf. Mary Kate and Ashley flopped near glass shards.
“Oh my god,” I said.
“Shit,” Andrew said, drawing the word into multiple syllables.
“Towels,” I said.
Andrew rushed into the bathroom to retrieve three bleach-stained yellow towels while I put my tennis shoes on without socks. The wooden floor was covered in tiny blue pebbles and flowing anemones, the deep sea diver turned with his mask toward the ground, as if he’d seen nothing. I knew Andrew didn’t have anything like a bucket, so I removed the plastic drawers from the bottom of his refrigerator and filled them with water in the sink.
We picked up the fish one by one, cradling and then plunking them quickly into the water-filled drawers. We stood over the sink, watching them readjust.
“Will they be okay?” Andrew asked.
I put my arm around his shoulders, hugged my skin to his. “Yeah,” I said, trying to sound reassuring.
He felt for my hip and held on.
“As okay as they can be.”