I was one of those children who had an enormous enthusiasm for dogs and cats and was unfortunately allergic to both. Whenever it was possible to play with a dog or a cat I did so. It takes an enormous amount of dedication (and an enormous lack of self-control) to play with something that consistently and without fail gives you a severe allergic reaction. I played with furry animals until my sneezes echoed to the cold, uncaring skies, and the tears in my itchy, watery eyes mingled with real tears of regret that I could not have this much fun all the time. More than anything in the world I wanted a puppy, and I asked for one every Christmas. I got a sister.
Looking back, I don’t think a real animal could have lived up to my expectations, anyway. I wanted a playmate, a confidant, and a licensed therapist all rolled into a big furry package that never shed or smelled like a wet dog. I was determined that my dog, when I got one, would be courageous and faithful like Old Yeller and have the wit of Snoopy, the soulful, melancholy brown eyes of a Pound Puppy, and the British sophistication of the two parent dogs from 101 Dalmatians (the cartoon, not the live-action version). On top of this, I had no real experience with owning a dog, and my subconscious assumption was that they waited, patient and immobile like stuffed animals, for you to play with them and take care of their basic needs when you felt like it. One of the more inventive of my many How To Get A Puppy When Your Parents Won’t Let You Get One schemes involved letting the puppy live in a large cardboard box on the New York City street outside my apartment building, where it would be taken care of and properly watched over by kind, attentive strangers and passers-by.
I couldn’t have a puppy, but I could have goldfish, my parents said. I sure could. And I had goldfish, off and on, for many years. I discovered early on that I received precious little emotional fulfillment from taking care of a creature with a six-second memory and no awareness of my existence. Not that I didn’t try. I named my fish, I took care of them, I watched them swim. It’s pretty much all you can do, though I somehow continued to expect more—and to be disappointed. A short but eloquent poem that I wrote at the age of five perfectly expressed my feelings of disillusionment at the deep and profound bond that failed to develop between me and any of my goldfish. It went:
I have a little fishI love her very muchBut she doesn’t care.
The thought that I wrote that poem still troubles me. My parents think it’s hilarious.
I have been giving this topic a lot of thought, because last week I bought another fish. I haven’t owned one since early on in high school. My motivations have changed, I reasoned. This is a frivolous purchase; I’m getting a little blue fighting fish because it looks pretty and it will jazz up my room. I won’t even name it. Look how far I’ve come!
Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment. Maybe I like my feelings unrequited. But I really think it’s going to be different this time. Just now when I looked over at my fish, I could have sworn it gave me a look like it understood. At least, for six seconds.