Billy Blue The Second has been with us for 13 months. Which is about 12 months and two weeks longer than any of us expected.
Billy Blue The First bit the dust after only seven days. I woke early one morning to find his blue betta belly kissing the top of the water in his bowl, which had been placed — only for the time being, I insisted — in the center of the island in our kitchen.
Immediately, I woke up Andrew. “You’ve got to go get a new fish,” I said. I did not want our son to wake and see that his 1-week-old fish had perished. The day before he had called the betta his best friend.
Andrew was less concerned about possible trauma. “It’s 5 a.m. on a Sunday,” he said. “There are no pet stores open right now.”
He was right, but I was not in the mood to explain death to a toddler that morning. “Well,” I replied “It’s a good thing we buy our fish at Walmart.”
And that, friends, is what’s beautiful about America. I’m all for amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties, but I also appreciate that fresh cinnamon rolls and a fish that will keep a 2-year-old’s vision of the world intact can be purchased 24 hours a day.
By the time our son woke up, the new Billy Blue was swimming circles in his bowl in our kitchen. The other Billy had seen his last circles in the bowl of the toilet.
“Good morning, Billy!” my son practically sang.
And once he was situated with his cinnamon roll at the breakfast table, I made my way back to Billy Blue’s bowl and surreptitiously leaned in. “Stay alive, but don’t get comfortable.”
I wanted this Billy to live long and prosper somewhere besides where I cooked. Soon I would move him. Maybe to a sunny ledge in the study, far from the sea monster attacks and volcanic Lego explosions known to plague my son’s bedroom.
“Two weeks,” Andrew said when we were going to sleep. “No way the fish lives longer than two weeks.”
“It’s probably as much as you can expect from a Walmart fish,” I conceded. I told myself that if Billy made it two weeks, then I would move him.
That was over a year ago.
In the beginning it made sense that Billy lived in the kitchen because he was central to our daily activities. Every afternoon, our son would climb onto a tall stool and ask for a few of the tiny orange pebbles that Billy ate. He would drop them into the bowl one by one, and then he would turn the light on in Billy’s bowl and watch the fish swim in circles. We would talk about Billy Blue and whether or not he needed a friend, maybe Oliver Orange or Randy Red.
But then the new and shiny wore off of Billy, and the elaborate feeding routine only happened twice a week, then it went down to once a week. After that I knew I could move Billy without anyone noticing because I was the only one who paid attention to him on a daily basis. It was a short walk from the kitchen to the study, yet I never made it with Billy’s bowl. He stayed right where I could complain about his home in the kitchen. Mostly when I had an audience, of course.
“Polly,” my mom said one afternoon when I rolled my eyes in the general direction of Billy.
“Who’s Polly?” I asked.
She didn’t seem surprised that I had forgotten Polly, who was apparently a parakeet I had been “like, totally excited” to get when I was in junior high. And after my initial thrill waned, Polly had been mostly cared for by my mother.
“Polly, huh?” I said. There was no point in apologizing for that gross neglect. We saw that I was obviously doing karmic payback now. “Do you think giving boring pet names is genetic?” I asked, “something you pass down to your kids, like hair color and whether they are nice to waiters and waitresses in restaurants?”
My mother thought about this for a moment then said, “I wouldn’t have liked Polly any less if her name was more interesting. She was part of the family for a while.”
I sighed and watched Billy circling in his bowl, blocking me from rolling out cookies as freely as I wished. No one knew — except him and me — that I had taken to talking to him. I told him what I had to do for the day and what I needed to put on the grocery list, and I asked him if he thought the new baby was going to wake up soon or if it was safe to go back to sleep. I didn’t like to change his water, but I did get a ping of pride when he slid back into the freshened bowl and seemed to circle with more vigor.
One of you out there reading this thinks it’s time I teach my son some responsibility: March that child to the bowl and have him feed that fish! Someday I’ll take on that lesson, just like I’ll take on the conversation about death. But not today and not with this fish.
Today this pet is more than a fish. He is a living, swimming reminder of how quickly life moves even on days when it feels like you are just swimming in circles. He is a 2-year-old waking up with sheer joy to see his best friend. He is a 5 a.m. drive to Walmart to get breakfast and a blue betta. He is the family we were a year ago, which is very different than who we are now, with a brand new baby. He is everything that changes and yet doesn’t change. And a reminder that as long as you aren’t circling the toilet bowl, you are still winning.