In the dark of my kitchen, having wiped down the island and replaced the all-purpose spray under the sink and arranged the barstools at even intervals and turned off the lights, I wander to the refrigerator for a glass of water. Everyone else in the house is asleep: my husband, my four young children. Often this silent hour of glowing appliances doing their nighttime work is my favorite time of day, and I am reluctant to go to bed. The night passes too quickly in sleep, and the morning begins for me with a freight train made of toddlers. For now I am soothed by the rhythmic slosh of the dishwasher, a noise signifying I will not wake to a heap of dishes slimed-over in the sink.

By the refrigerator a square of blue light reflects off the white tiles. It is our tiny family fish tank housing our nameless betta fish. It has the aura of a nightclub rave—neon pebbles and artificial shrubs glowing under blacklight—and for a moment I imagine our fish flapping his fins to an underwater techno beat. In our long days of half-eaten and abandoned strawberries, overturned plastic cups of milk, Power Wheels in the driveway, and countless diaper changes on babies both alive and pretend, the fish goes largely ignored. It is an ugly fish, especially for a betta: dull orange with fins tattered and uneven. His water is murky, and a film has started on the ornamental plants intended to give him refuge. The algae keeps the plastic from reflecting under the blacklight, empty patches in the incandescent water.

The fish was my daughter Scout’s fourth birthday present, the one we bought after the prettier fish her aunt gave her committed suicide by leaping through a two-inch breach in the top of the tank. By the time we arrived home from preschool that first day, the original gift fish was desiccated, its fins stuck to the countertop like iridescent melted cheese I had to scratch off with my fingernail. We had, back then, been filled with the promise of a first family pet. We anticipated our daughter’s joy at finally having an animal to care for. The fish, on the other hand, was eerily prophetic: our house was no place for a pet.

That afternoon at the pet store, in search of a replacement fish, I pointed out the blue ombré bettas trailing baroque fins like the petals of a parrot tulip. Scout wasn’t interested. She wanted the fish who looked to have survived a couple domestic disputes, the cheapest in the store. Looking back, maybe he was all the fish we deserved.

“Our girl wanted, needed, deserved a pet. In lieu of the puppy she begged for and the hamster my sister suggested, I agreed to the fish.”

 

Our intentions were good. Since she was one, Scout has cradled lizards in her chubby hands, stroking their backs; rescued ladybugs from our living room, where they hibernate every winter; and squealed from our foyer window every time a canine passes our front door. She began requesting a dog when she was two. Also when she was two, I gave birth to her twin brother and sister, so my husband and I couldn’t help but laugh maniacally in response. In our guilt, though, we bought her a golden retriever puppet for Christmas, the kind you stick your hand inside to make it wiggle like a real dog. This beloved stuffed animal, named Caramel, has slept with her every night since. It’s more than a little depressing to watch her petting the dog’s polyester fur with one hand while manipulating its head in satisfaction with the other hand stuffed inside. In Scout’s bedtime menagerie, Caramel has since been joined by KitKat the tabby kitten, Caramel Junior, a smaller version of the mother, and Pancake the ladybug. The animals have their own shoebox beds and Scout drapes them in blankets and leaves behind snacks when she goes to preschool.

If love could animate, Caramel would bound to the door when Scout arrived home. But The Velveteen Rabbit is just a story, and our girl wanted, needed, deserved a pet. In lieu of the puppy she begged for and the hamster my sister originally suggested, I agreed to the fish. He isn’t technically nameless—it’s just that Scout insisted on naming him “The Fish,” so it’s easy for me to forget that we’re using a proper noun when I ask, “Have you fed The Fish?” It has been a year, and the children’s initial enthusiasm has vanished. I am the only one who feeds The Fish anymore, or replaces the water in the tank, or thumbs the slime off the hot pink artificial flora. A fish, it turns out, isn’t the best pet for a child who just wants something to hold.

I peer in the tank, guilty. Perhaps stunned by the attention, The Fish locks eyes with me. It is nearing midnight, but inside the tank it is the same unnatural bright as always. “My God,” I whisper. “Do you ever sleep?” I stare at the fish in a kind of meditative state until I feel a bond beginning to form, or until I can conjure the impression of one. I begin to believe we understand one another, both of us awake and flapping our fins in a lethargic imitation of day. I regret all the days I considered not feeding The Fish, sometimes because retrieving the little dried meat pellets from the drawer—while my four children were lined up at the bar with their own microwaved meat pellets—was more than I wanted to manage.

Illustration by Timothy Banks

I reach for my iPhone on the counter behind me and Google, Do betta fish sleep? Yes, they sleep, I read, but they don’t have eyelids. I lean over and squint at the tank again, feeling duped. I tap my index finger against the plastic and a shudder passes through The Fish’s body. What kind of pet looks the same awake and asleep, alive and dead?

We are at an impasse, the fish and me. I can hardly bear the thought of spending an hour of all my Saturdays dumping him into a plastic cup, paper toweling the grime from the walls of his tank and setting a timer while a tablet fizzes into his fresh water. But neither can I kill the family pet, not with a fist but not with neglect either. I consider the resources used to keep this bait alive, resources already scarce in our family, where adults are, in my personal opinion, underrepresented. Can fish be rehomed? I search again: How long do betta fish live? Google answers: 3–5 years in captivity.

Captivity! It’s inhumane, I suddenly realize, what we’re doing here. Now there’s an angle I can work: releasing the fish into its native habitat. Google? Cambodia. I stop short of asking Google whether the Reedy River resembles the ecosystem of the Mekong Delta.

I sigh at the fish tank. We’re in this together, I reckon, for the long haul. The Fish in his bright and bugless cube, and me in my indentured fish servitude. The last ones to bed, the first to wake, our eyelids never closing. And grateful, still, for a place to swim.