“When You Surface” by Ben Hall

There’s a pet-shop in town that I’ve been frequenting on Saturdays. What can I say; it’s cheaper than a movie. Last week, as I was walking back to the giant blue-tailed skink that’s intrigued me lately — there is something truly profound about his torpor — I passed a shelf of beta-fish. They were piled high in tiny individual cups each about the size of a fist. Beta’s are kept separately because whenever two betas meet, they must either mate or murder the other. But whoever had packaged them had neglected to pierce the lids so that oxygen could enter. I remembered our Wal-Mart dates in high school (though we were too young and shy to call them that) and the time when we found a similar collection in their pet aisles. You were outraged. Don’t you know how easily they can get sick in such a small space? Nobody has even poked holes in the tops. They’ll suffocate before anyone buys them. We tracked down a sales associate and you’d pleaded and with him to change their arrangements. He simply shrugged, mumbled something about management, and continued on his way, leaving us feeling small and young and useless. You fumed over it the entire ride home. I hadn’t understood why you should be so angry. I told you that, in the scheme of things, it was not very important. For two days you did not return my calls.

It’s strange to think that these fish would be invisible to me if I’d never known you. This past summer marked the fifth year since we stopped speaking. I might manage to forget you if not for these tiny creatures. Instead, each of them is the shape of your memory, the places where you emerge from my past, drenched and heavy with regrets and unuttered apologies.

I think of how we first met as children on the swing-set in the yard of your neighbor. When you had ventured to talk to me, I’d been preoccupied with climbing to the top bar to impress you. We each tried again and again but I think we never overcame that incongruity between us, each of us in turns too brazen or timid to reach the other. Or too imperceptive to know when we had.
There was the night you invited me into your room. On nearly every flat surface rested a fishbowl, each housing a single beta, each as brilliant as a crayon. But in one bowl there were two. They’re mates. They don’t hate each other. (Do I lie to myself? Others have said this is impossible. But I remember it.) You’d watched intently, waiting for my reaction. Like a fool, standing there bathed in your strangeness and the coppery light of two forty-watt bulbs, I hadn’t known where I was.
Three years later the summer ended, us no longer on speaking terms. You returned to California, plunging deeper into a world so far from what I knew. I don’t think I’d realized what a poor home Mississippi had been to you. You waited so long to become yourself. The person I knew was only the seed of all that you could be.

A few months ago I saw a picture of you. Your hair was bleached blonde and shaved short. Elsa Lanchester’s face from The Bride of Frankenstein covered your thigh in black and red. You were with your lover, a woman who somehow reminded me of who you’d been before. I wondered if that meant something.

I’ve spent a number of nights on the road in recent years, making journeys from one temporary home to another. Between two and six a.m., mine is one of only a handful of vehicles on the road. For those few hours, the world is a simpler place where nothing bars me from the things I would say, where I flatter myself you might answer if I asked. In that stillness, I’ve written a dozen letters to you, scripted a hundred phone calls. I’ve wanted to ask you if you’ve run far enough yet or if the air there has grown thin? I’ve wanted to ask if there’s room for two.

That day at the pet-shop, I thought about pouncing on one of shopkeepers, of channeling something of your righteous outrage and berating him for his negligence. But I didn’t. Somehow, I think I knew what both of you would say.


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