Betta Fish Blues



Neighborhood: Upper West Side

“Can you help me?” I said this to the young woman who was opening boxes in front of the aisle of fish tank decorations.

“Sure,” said the woman. She pulled herself up from her squat by pushing off the edge of the box. “What can I help you with?”

“I’d like to see your goldfish,” I said, “because I’d like to buy a goldfish today.”” 

  “What did you have in mind?”

“A plain old goldfish. Orange, like the type you see on TV.” 

“You mean like a regular, regular fish?” She said. She gestured behind her to the massive tank, which was full of the kind of fish I wanted. The sign taped to its front read: “FEEDERS: 23 CENTS EACH.” 

“Those are feeder fish,” said Miracle, who wore a red t-shirt under her Petco nametag. “We use them to feed to other fish.

“Oh my god,” I said. “Fish eat Dorothy?”

“You’re thinking about Elmo’s World,” said Miracle, nodding. “A lot of people come in here thinking about Elmo and Dorothy.”

“Yes, um. I want a Dorothy,” I said. 

“Are you sure? You won’t be happy with a Dorothy,” said Miracle. “At least not for long. Because they die fast. They die easy. We breed them because they are so cheap as a food source.” She looked genuinely concerned when she said, “Honestly, owning a Dorothy is actually kind of unethical because you are taking away from other fishes’ food. Those things will last a week or two, maybe a month if you take really good care of the fella. I’m talking a big tank, daily water changes, high quality food, companionship.”

But I had not planned to have a fish for that long, and I did not want to really be a companion for a fish. I just wanted a fish to have and to own and to name, and then to die conveniently, perhaps in two weeks, the length of the expected lockdown. But this made me sound heartless. There was no good way of saying to a pet store salesman that I didn’t expect my fish to live for long. 

In my time trying to plot my next sentence, I found myself steered over to the narrow shelf where jars of betta fish were stacked precariously. They looked glum, and I’m sure I did too. Then Miracle led me over to the cardboard box she was first opening to reveal bags and bags of betta fish, a new shipment from California. Betta fish, she told me, are the ideal first pet for anyone because of how little maintenance they require. I remarked that they looked awfully lonely in those atomized bags. They were individually placed and were not-swimming in their three inches of water because these fellas can and will fight each other to the death. Bettas like their privacy. “That’s why I recommend getting either a single male,” said Miracle, “or a sorority.”

“What’s a fish sorority?” I asked.  

“It’s a tank of all-female betta fish, so that they don’t fight, because females don’t fight other females. I have a sorority at home,” said Miracle. She pulled out her phone and showed me a series of photos featuring a humongous tank. The tank’s brightness made it nearly impossible to see the female fish swimming presumably peacefully. “That’s a sorority,” she said, smiling at her tank. “You take care of all this?” I said incredulously. “Yeah,” said Miracle, “I’m crazy, but I’m addicted to buying fish. They’re just so pretty. I come into work and I want more, and more, and more!” I gazed into the box, the bags and bags of fish, and it was true I was possessed by a faint desire to own all those living jewels, and could see myself being the kind of person who lived in the company of one fish, then two fish, and then more and more and more. But I pushed aside the thought. 

“So what kind of tank should I get?” I asked her. I picked up a goldfish bowl a la Dorothy and held it before me.  

“You want to put a betta fish in that? she said. 

“I want to put Dorothy in that,” I said, trying to bring the conversation back to the flimsy goldfish.

“Listen, feeder fish die like that. They are bred to die. Miracle told me again of the cruelty of owning a Dorothy, and convinced me again, more passionately this time, that a betta fish was the way to go. It would be downright cruel to own a fish and put it in a bowl, when instead it could just be eaten and participate in the lifecycle of some other better fish. Did I not want to be on good terms with the animals of the world? Yes, yes I wanted to be on good terms with all animals. You know what? I will buy a bigger tank because you know what? I am getting a betta fish and you know what? A betta fish is a Chinese fighting fish. Did I know they are used to swimming in long narrow streams with strong currents? Miracle held her palms parallel to each other. “You know what? You will need a ten-gallon tank, at least.”

“Ten gallons!” I cried. My heart began to race. I imagined a colossal tank sitting on the living room coffee table, hiding the unfinished puzzle of 101 Dalmatians. 

“Excuse me,” said a new voice. “I couldn’t help but overhear. Are you a new betta fish buyer?”

“I guess,” I said, turning to meet a woman who seemed much older than me. There were worry lines around her eyes and forehead. She peered at the bowl I was still holding in my hands but gingerly now, like I was handling a piece of evidence in a murder mystery, and the cause of death was not being on good terms with nature. The woman licked her teeth and frowned at the bowl. “Oh yeah, he’s definitely not going to be happy in a bowl like that. I would not recommend it. I have four betta fish—”

“A sorority?” asked Miracle brusquely.

“Male, each in his own tank,” said the woman with a proud smile. “And I live in a very small space.”

“This is my concern,” I said quickly, “because I also don’t have that much space, and I have three roommates as it is.”

“You’re going to want to get a twenty-gallon tank at least,” said this woman, nodding. “For one. A betta won’t be happy in a small round tank like that. Betta like long tanks that most resemble rivers.” 

Miracle left to help another customer, and the woman and I were alone in front of the empty fish tanks for a moment. “I’m Beth Ann,” she said. “Audrey,” I said, extending my hand. “We better not,” she said. “Virus,” I agreed. We bumped elbows. “Let me give you my number,” said Beth Ann, “and I can send you some helpful links with information for setting up your betta fish tank.”

“That would be so great,” I said, “because I officially have no idea what I’m doing.” I put down the tank in order to send Beth Ann a text. 

“Don’t be scared,” said Beth Ann. Her eyes were wide and dark and crazy. Her phone, invisible in her pocket, chimed, signaling deliverance. “Plenty of incompetent people in New York own betta fish in extremely small spaces.” She waved goodbye. 

I waited for Miracle to return and tell me about the types of betta fish Petco offered. There were Crowntail Bettas, Veiltail Bettas, Dragon Scale Betta, Butterfly Bettas, and Rose Petal Bettas. In the end I picked a pale blue fish with a petal-shaped tail. “He’s very handsome,” I declared. Miracle smiled. Then we went back to pick a tank, and I picked a pretty big one which, Miracle discovered, using her phone, had an online discount. “We price match,” she said. “Thank god,” I said. And in the last few seconds she piled fish food, water conditioner, and gravel into my arms, because a fish needed to eat and a betta fish required water of a certain acidity. “Now you’re ready babe!” she announced, grinning. “I’m so excited for you, fish mom.” “Me too,” I said. But at the checkout I forgot completely about the discounts and paid full price for everything. I headed home on a high I had not felt before. I held on to this feeling of power as I boarded the subway, me with my Chinese fish in a time of virus-related Sinophobia. I hoped that people would notice the fish more than my face. Indeed I saw a child point at my fish, and this relaxed me. Perhaps I should travel with a fish wherever I go for the next few weeks. 

Back in the apartment, I named the betta fish Prose. “Prose swims,” I tried aloud. “Prose needs water. Prose is swift.” Prose was male. Prose was both slim and plump, I guess the word I’d use is sturdy, but when he did not swim, he looked like a dead person’s cold blue finger floating, disembodied, at the top of an empty lake. I raised Prose to the light of the setting sun. “Prose,” I said, grandly. Nothing really happened. The sunlight was syrupy and dark but I didn’t feel impressed by the way Prose, in complementary shades of cool blue-green, cut through it. In fact I felt kind of mad because I’d just read the Petco receipt and the forgone discounts, so I went to take a shower.

That night, I watched my roommate happily put together the whole tank, the filtration system, and the gravel. She stood with her palms flat against the kitchen tabletop, lips parted. She really was very methodical, which was a trait I disliked when we were doing jigsaw puzzles, but it seemed useful to me that evening.

As she fussed around with the fish and the tank, I saw an opportunity to play a little into a preset scene. I sat down, propped my elbows on my knees, and said, “Swear to god, I’m going to return this fish. It’s too much of a headache, and an expense.” My roommate said, “But he’s so cute! Give him a chance.” I then said, encouraged by her seeming approval, “Then we’ll give him that chance. Let’s build this tank.” I clapped my hands, stood up, and sat back down. Instead she did all the work while I complained about the expensive tank. My roommate plugged the tank into the wall. The lights came on. The filter began to burble. 

“Good job,” I said. I stood up. “Let’s put him in now.” I reached for Prose’s little container and lifted the plastic lid. My roommate slapped my arm. “No,” she said. “We have to wait twenty-four hours.”

“What?” I cried, surprised by the physical contact and how much it had hurt. 

“That’s what the instructions say: the water needs to filter for twenty-four hours, to achieve the correct pH level for your betta.”

“No he needs to go in now,” I insisted. Intense dread. 

“If he goes in now he will die!” said my roommate.

“If he doesn’t go in now I will kill him myself!”

My roommate slapped my arm again and reached for her phone. “This time tomorrow. Do not put him in until then,” she said.

“Goddamn it,” I muttered, wringing my hands before me. We moved the tank into my bedroom because it was my fish after all. 

As I lay in my bed I listened to the empty tank as it filtered water. I turned on the light and watched Prose, my three-year contract with gills. I went to sleep, troubled by the thought. At two in the morning I woke up, unplugged the tank’s filter, re-plugged my CD player, and carried the tank into the kitchen where I emptied the gravel and the halfway-filtered water into a strainer over the sink. I took apart the tank from light to filter to lid and left the gravel to dry on several sheets of paper towels. I wrapped everything in paper towels. Weirdly energized by this waste of resources, I returned to my room, walked past Prose, and wrote a text to my roommate stating what I had done to Prose, and what I would do the next day. She was surprisingly cool about it and replied quite amicably. To my surprise. To my slight disappointment. I had hoped she had formed a bond with Prose in building his tank. 

The next day, I called Petco. “Do you accept pet returns?” I asked. 

“Depends on when you made the purchase,” said the voice on the phone. “We only accept returns within thirty days of the purchase.”

“Yesterday,” I said. “I bought a betta fish yesterday. Also, do you accept fish returns? Like alive fish?”

“It’s still alive?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Sure, if you have the receipt,” said the voice, “feel free to return it.”

“Is this true of all Petco stores? Is this the Petco policy?” Because the Petco I had called wasn’t the one I had visited—I didn’t want to risk talking to Miracle—so instead I had called a Petco on the Upper East Side. I was soundly assured that yes, all Petcos accepted fish returns, and would even accept the return of wet gravel, tanks, and food, the whole business of it. I just needed to bring the receipt. 

But just to be safe, I ended up calling the Petco on the Upper West Side as well, using a disguised voice. I asked the same questions.

“What’s wrong with the fish?” I was asked. 

“It’s not the fish,” I said in a deep British accent. “It’s me. I just wasn’t ready for the responsibility of handling a fish yet, at this point in my life.”

“As long as you have the receipt,” said the voice. Male, so it couldn’t have been Miracle. I was about to say something like “It’s just because I’m moving out of town,” but he had already hung up. 

I returned the fish, the fish tank, the still-wet gravel, the fish food, and the water conditioner without any problems. Prose rested on the top of the boxes, which were now behind the counter, beyond my reach.  

My hands were clean of all that now, but not literally because I had touched at least a dozen public things in the process of returning the fish. I leaned over the Petco counter to squirt some hand sanitizer into my palm when I thought the cashier wasn’t looking, then I left. 

I am vulnerable to salespeople in the way some people’s immune systems are vulnerable to the common cold: one interaction can dissolve all margins. I like things being sold to me because it shows that I am presently alive and will be for a little longer to experience the product being sold to me, and the betta fish salespeople convince you that you and the world will be alive and well for the next three years, the amount of time to take care of a healthy betta.


Audrey Deng once lost her phone when she leaned over a lotus pond. To professors Phillip Lopate and Said Sayrafiezadeh, thank you for talking about Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood in class.

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