ghosts of fish past
“Oh come on,” Bernie said. “What else are we going to do? Drink in my car?”
Amanda shrugged which meant there was no point in disagreeing. It was the last Saturday of the last week of our last summer together before college and we had a handle of watermelon rum, which tasted just like Jolly Ranchers. None of us had really learned to drink yet so the idea of getting OMG-wasted after hours in the Sternberg Museum was kind of thrilling instead of just kind of lame.
And Bernie was leaving in the morning. So.
Amanda wanted to bring her boyfriend but Bee and I told her there was no way, did she see either one of us bringing guests along? Okay, but we didn’t have anybody to bring, Amanda retorted, then yanked the wrapper off the top of the rum bottle with her teeth. That was sort of true so Bernie and I shut up.
Bernie picked the lock with a couple of bobby pins—Bernie being the one in our friendship who had improbable skills like that. We all half expected there to be an alarm and flashing lights and maybe a SWAT team too—I mean, what kind of museum, even in the middle of Kansas, doesn’t have an alarm? But it had to be a sign from Jesus when she forced the door and: nothing.
Amanda—of course—promptly stumbled into a big metal trash can that clang banged over onto the floor.
“Shhhh!” She whispered to the can and laughed back at us. Bernie rolled her eyes and stepped over her into the foyer, searching for the lights.
“Better leave ‘em off,” I said, and Bernie huffed at me but I knew she was annoyed because she hadn’t thought of that, the attention it would attract.
Behind us, Amanda stroked her fallen friend. “Such a pretty boy,” she mock-whispered and then giggled so hard I thought she might throw up. “Such a pretty trash can.”
Bernie caught my eye. We were used to it by now—Amanda’s half-act, half-serious drunkenness, the little girl humor and hum, followed in a few hours by the shuddering tears. She’d grow out of it. We hoped. Bernie grabbed the rum and took a sip straight from the bottle. She made that cartoon cross-eyed face of weak drinkers everywhere and I laughed.
“Now you,” she commanded and I obliged, closing my eyes and gulping. The last time we’d gotten blitzed had been icky sticky wine coolers and the next morning Bernie had thrown up in her mother’s car.
We were such badass chickadees. Badass chickadees who’d gotten all dressed up to get drunk in a shut down fish mausoleum. Because? You never knew, right? There was always that small cooked carrot dangling that that Special Man might wander into our revelries that night. Might be conjured up. Might finally notice how special one—all?—of us really were.
But: sex. Really? How? How was it all possible? We knew the hows, but HOW? The flesh on flesh scrape of it. The jabbing, fumbling impossibility of plugging prongs into a power strip—eeyow. The thought of it made me rashy and electric, wobbly and skinned like something newborn. And newborns should definitely not be having sex yet except maybe? With the right Special Man/Guy/Boy/Thing/Penis? But how, Bernie demanded on that other night, five wine coolers in, could it possibly feel good to guys? Like, really. The hand felt a scratch but not the nail. We snickered at her, but I didn’t have a better answer and Amanda didn’t volunteer anything either.
It was still a question I wanted answered.
“Get her up,” Bernie whispered to me. “I’m not ready for tonight to be over.”
I grabbed the still-giggling Amanda: panties showing with her skirt riding up, a faint sheen of sweat jockeying her brow into her hairline. Up close, I could smell the fruit and burnt candy perfume she wore and I wondered who, in a few weeks, would do this for her when she needed it?
“Fish within a fish?” I asked Bernie, but she was already halfway down the hallway, zip, zip, go, rum bottle swinging from her fingers.
With Amanda’s sticky fingers in mine, I pulled her toward the one exhibit Sternberg is really famous for: the fish within a fish. Kansas, dusty prairie Kansas, used to sleep under a blanket of warm water called the Western Interior Sea, which bisected the United States. And between all of that prairie and that balmy water, in the middle of more or less Appalachia and California? Sea monsters. Honest to God sea monsters. One of which ended up nailed to a wall less than a mile from my bedroom: the Xiphactinus, a fourteen-foot pimp daddy who died mid-digest of the also fairly impressive six foot Gillicus. Sleeping in between its murderer’s ribs for all eternity.
Honestly? The skeleton kind of looked like the remains of a fish you’d find on your dinner plate, except much bigger. The bones picked clean, one stuck in your teeth. Flattened out under a large sheet of glass. One of the edges, you can see some sort of glue that keeps the bones together. Not quite as magical as you’d hope.
But I could see the appeal for Bernie. It was kind of cool— of all the places where sea monsters once lived, this one ended up in our backyard. It made history seem all the more alive, all the more real. Nothing ever gets to stay forever, but the Xiphactinus–Gillicus was doing a pretty good job of trying.
We found Bernie breathing a cloud onto the glass coffin of the double fish. She cradled the bottle of rum in her arms like a baby. The heat from her fingers and the steamy night clouded the glass and warmed the rum inside to a thick syrup. She rubbed at her eyes and tracked mascara down her cheeks.
“Bee, it’s not the last time,” I said.
“The hell it’s not,” she replied. “How do you think it died?”
“Boredom,” Amanda answered then burped. “Living in this fucking cowtown.”
“Christ, I’m glad to be leaving,” Bernie agreed.
I didn’t say anything.
Bee traced her fingers over the glass encasing the bones. They were lit up at night so they had a light blue fluorescent glow to them. Pretty, pretty. Spiky teeth poked from both the fish and the fish within a fish. Uncomfortable, I thought. An uncomfortable dinner and an uncomfortable death.
“Do fish have souls?”
“Jesus, Bernadette,” I said. “Give me that bottle. Tell me. What are you guys going to miss about this place?”
Bernie’s eyes were wide and she kept tracing over the fish within a fish. The bottle clunked down next to her ankles, a second best alternative to handing it over. “This,” she said. Other people would’ve meant: this. You guys. Stupid escapades with friends that end in breaking into museums because you haven’t been here since you were six years old. Maybe secondarily, a different Bernadette Janusch would’ve meant: this museum, this town, this life. Our Bernadette Janusch meant: this night-lit exhibit of dead fish.
“I’m going to miss Collin,” Amanda sighed. “I am going to miss him so, so much.”
Bee finally turned to look at me and cocked an eyebrow, one hand still on the glass as though her fingers pinned the fish within a fish down. In the grand tradition of high school friends’ boyfriends, we hated Collin. Amanda planned to marry him. I hoped he’d be hit by a very discerning meteorite well before that day.
Amanda slipped her own class ring off her right hand and dropped it onto her left hand ring finger. Bernie made a GACK! sound in the back of her throat and went back to puzzling over the fish.
“I think—” Bernie started but Amanda interrupted her.“I’m going to call him,” she said, wrestling her phone out of her pocket. “I need to call him. I just miss my baby’s voice.”
Finally found something to say that can’t be expressed through emojis? I wondered but the words stayed loyal and thick and silent in my mouth.
“No boys tonight,” Bernie said sharply. “Just one night, Amanda, that shouldn’t be that hard. Not if you expect to be together for-EV-ah.” Bernie hit the notes so you could hear the implied doodle hearts circling Mrs. Collin Moore, Mrs. Amanda Moore, Mr. and Mrs. Collin Moore.
Amanda was quiet for a moment and I thought maybe the storm had passed.
“I think—” Bernie started again but Amanda interrupted.
“Caro, where are we going for breakfast?”
Bernie didn’t say anything but the snap of her head sent her hair swinging around her face and I blanched.
“Um,” I said. Articulately.
“You guys made brunch plans,” Bernie said, her voice as even as a sheet of glass.
“Well you know,” I said. “We figured you’d be busy with family before you left.”
“You didn’t even invite me. You didn’t even mention it.”
“I think Carrow’s,” Amanda sighed. “Carrow for my Caro.”
I felt nauseated. I could feel the rum burning through my nose and into my brain.
“Bee,” I started. “It’s really no big deal.”
“Of course not,” she agreed. “I’m going to be so busy with my new life and my new city and my new friends. It’s not a big deal.” We glared at each other for a moment before Amanda snapped out her phone and began dialing.
“Put that goddamn phone down,” Bernie said, her voice the same tone you’d use for a dog who’d pissed all over the carpet.
“Well I already gave up my Friday night to hang with you guys,” Amanda snapped. “I can’t talk to him now because you two are big virgin losers? Jesus, just date each other why don’t you, if you’re that lonely and jealous.”
Which, okay. Was quite melodramatic and a low blow but part of it stung because I, at least, was a little lonely and jealous of the fact that a boy, even such a phenomenally quintessential high school idiot asshole boy like Collin, wanted Amanda. In that way we all wanted to be wanted. The way no one wanted me.
I made a grab for the rum bottle, which Bernie kicked over, eyes narrowed.
“Has he ever even told you he loved you?” Bernie asked.
Bernie knew he hadn’t. She knew because Amanda had told me, distraught, tearful and drunk one night, and I had told Bee.
“Oh you bitch,” Amanda said, looking at me. A swale of high rising panic in my throat. That was the problem with threes—no one had the luxury of staying out of a fight. The best defense against anything is misdirection.
“God, Bee—” I started but she cut me off.
“No, tell me, Amanda. What does he love about you? Your mouth? Your pussy?” I groaned and mouthed an apology at the fish within a fish. I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to hear this. You have survived so long without this. Except it hadn’t, of course. It hadn’t survived at all.
“What, exactly, does he love about you? What makes you so goddamn special?”
Amanda’s mouth dropped open.
“Sorry,” Bernie said. “I just think I need to be honest.”
“Fuck you!” Amanda yelled, which was a pretty terrible comeback, but I couldn’t think of anything to say either. “Fuck both of y’all!”
“Leave me out of it,” I said uselessly.
“Oh, don’t be so damn touchy,” Bernie said.
And that was that. Those were the rules.
Amanda’s face was red and her fingernails glittered in the security lights. She sniffed and buckled a little under a suppressed sob and I couldn’t tell if she was actually crying or just trying to make us feel bad. Which I did. Bernie turned back towards the fish and it was like we were strangers who had just happened to all wander, drunkenly, into the museum under different circumstances at the same time.
And I was so sick of it all. What was I going to miss? I wasn’t going to miss any of it, because I wasn’t going anywhere. I was going to miss all of it because I wasn’t going anywhere. I was the only one who wasn’t going to leave it behind for a new town and new friends and somehow that made the parting worse, because I wasn’t really leaving anything, they were leaving me.
Well the hell with that.
I turned and left them there. Bernie called after me and I heard Amanda shuffle herself sideways and say, “What? What?” but I left them there beside the fish within a fish—which was just a stupid dead fish anyway. Anything could last forever behind glass. I was off to find the live fishes and I hauled the rum along with me.
Fuck them both. I could leave too.
The Sternberg loops over itself in concentric circles. The first exhibit, the big exhibit, you come to is the fish within a fish but if you keep going, you find the dinosaur rooms, guarded over by a T-Rex model with those improbably tiny arms. If you’re not a ten-year-old boy and you bypass the dinosaurs, there’s an aquarium filled with large fish. None of them are special enough to make it under glass, although I guess a million years ago the Xiphactinus was nothing special either. But then it died, digesting, the most basic of all human anatomy, and here we are: a museum. A town. A me.
In the darkened room of the aquarium—no light except for the dim security bulb and the neon red EXIT sign in the corner—the fishes were just moving shadows. Like the fish had been vacuumed up and all that were left were their charred doppelganger outlines. I pulled out my phone and listened to John Lennon tell me that none of his friendships compared to me, although they had their places and moments. It was, I imagined, a collegiate thing to do when heart-achey. Amanda preferred pop ballads (her iPod was a collection of the greatest hits of Maroon 5, which were, in my opinion, not even close to “great”) and Bernie only ever liked songs if neither one of us had heard of them.
I put the song on repeat and gulped down thick shocks of rum, letting it burn my throat and gagging a bit. I imagined them missing me, looking for me. Maybe crying a little, contrite, loving. ‘Caroline,’ they’d say when they found me, when I allowed them to find me, ‘how could you ever think we’d leave you? We love you more than anyone. We’re not going anywhere.’
Forgetting as I listened to the song that it’s not really about people who love you, but people you love.
Which is a completely different thing altogether.
And something did find me but it was the bleached glow of an unfriendly flashlight. I shrieked and dropped the rum bottle to the ground, where it thunked and bounced but didn’t break. Behind the flashlight: a man, all Smurfened by the glow of the aquarium light. I couldn’t see his face and for a moment that red blinking flag all women know—DANGER! RAPIST! DANGER!—smacked me and I started to shake. Then I noticed his black uniform, his Maglite flashlight, his official order shoes.
A security guard.
A relief but not much of one.
“Another one of you goddamn kids!” He said. “What, are you having a party here tonight?”
“I…um…” So eloquent. I imagined the scene with my parents, having to explain how their daughter, with her 4.0 GPA, was arrested for drinking in an aquarium after hours. It’s so much harder to be bad when you’re used to being good.
“Don’t you know there’s a silent alarm on these places? What were you thinking? Trespassing is a crime, young lady! Had to come out here in the middle of the night because you stupid girls—”
I burst into tears.
“Oh shit,” the security guard said in disgust. “Not you, too.” He let me off with a warning— women’s tears were a weapon I had not fully discovered but that night was a good lesson— and walked me out to the front.
It was only marginally cooler since we’d picked the lock not an hour before, giggling and friends. The hot night felt like a sweaty wool blanket over my shoulders. I looked over the unbroken blacktop stretched out like a boundless sea. The asphalt doubled, then tripled in front of me, no one in sight.
Bernie’s car was gone. Bernie and Amanda were gone. They had left me. They weren’t looking for me at all—the opposite, in fact. For a wild moment, I wondered if I would never see them again, if they had both driven off into the night and to college and their future better lives and their future better friends. The alcohol was turning on me. I sat down on the sidewalk and started to cry.
And as I sat there sobbing into my fists, sticky with alcohol and self-pity and the humid night, I heard the rumble of Bernie’s Miata. I looked up and Bernie’s face was a mask of vanilla-white bone, tired and a little bit panicked.
“Jesus, Caro, why did you leave us?” I could’ve kissed her I was that happy to see her— mood swings be damned. I was their Caro, their Caroline, their tail and closing bracket, the A-B-C of us all right once more. Of course they didn’t leave me. Of course they didn’t.
I pushed myself up off the sidewalk and the world swung a little sideways so I launched myself into the front seat. Amanda was sprawled in the back, an arm wrapped around her head and wafting the smell of fermented watermelon.
“I about shit when that guy found us,” Bernie went on. She navigated out onto the road, probably too drunk to be driving and our brush with the law brought up images of that red pavement movie we’d had to watch in health class the year before. Her signaling was so precisely timed that any cop in the world would’ve stopped us. “Amanda cried and he kicked us out and you weren’t answering your phone.”
My phone. Left beside the aquarium. I hadn’t even noticed. It didn’t matter. If it was there tomorrow, it didn’t matter. Maybe it was still serenading the fish with The Beatles. A Savage Garden song came on the radio and Bernie clutched the steering wheel like a lifeline. From the back seat, Amanda moaned a little and I touched Bernie’s shoulder. She smiled thinly at me, definitely drunkish, and swiped a little at her eyes to indicate that my mascara had run.
“Well that was a bad idea,” I said finally. Bernie laughed and then I laughed and Amanda moaned and sat up and said, STOP THE CAR in that choked voice she had right before she threw up. Bernie signaled carefully, fingers never straying from ten and two, and blinkered over onto the shoulder where Amanda forced open the door and then threw up with a loud splat.
“Maybe we should call Collin for her now,” Bee said under her breath and I laughed again. She smiled at me and I missed her already.
Amanda limped back into the car, throwing herself into the seat but she managed to stay upright this time. She rolled the window down and hung her head outside like a dog. I turned to look at her and noticed that her eyes were closed but she wasn’t quite sleeping. In the green lights of the freeway, I could see the glitter from her blush on her cheeks, the faint pigment of her lipstick smeared over her chin. I reached back and squeezed her hand and she grabbed onto it and pulsed back three times—I. LOVE. YOU.
There would be other friends later, closer friends, funnier friends. Friends who loved me better, friends who I fell hopelessly in love with. Friends who broke my heart. People whose net of love floated me through the worst of my personal apocalypses. But there would never be friends who were so paused with me in that same moment, there would never be two people who were more the same me as I was in that instant.
Look: here. This moment. This is as perfectly unlonely as you will ever be. That closest moment was just a whisper of Bernie’s mismatched earrings and the smell of Amanda’s fruity vomit-breath wafting through the windows to us all. Not a moment worth very much at all.
And what did I give them? What did they ever take from me?
Bernie poured Amanda out of her backseat, guiding her up the steps and into her house. I sat in the car and watched, my throat still thick and coated with tears, the alcohol a low buzz in my chest. At the door, I saw Bee whisper something to Amanda and kiss her temple and then they were inside, a march I’d made a few times myself with Amanda in my arms, a sweet heavy weight.
And then Bernie was bounding down the steps and we were driving past Amanda’s house, down Main Street. Past the “I Love Jesus Christian Dollar Store” where Bee once stole three reverences of the Virgin Mary then spent the next month devising penitence of her own because she didn’t want to confess. She took flowers to her grandmother’s grave every day for a week, swapping the day old flowers over to abandoned strangers each time. She refused to talk to Amanda or me for those weeks until she came upon Amanda crying in a bathroom stall because she missed Bee so much.
“I’m not nervous,” she said finally, not taking her eyes off the road. Her fingers peeled a flaccid pink worm of gum out of the silver foil, which she crunched and threw in the backseat. A vanilla air freshener ticked back and forth on her rearview. “Are you?”
I thought about answering honestly. I wasn’t sure that honesty was Bee and my thing. “A little,” I hedged. “But I’m not going anywhere.”
Bee snapped her gum and shook her head. “I can’t believe Amanda threw up again. At least this time it wasn’t in my car,” she said, then laughed. I laughed too, although I knew we both, in fact, believed it. Throwing up was kind of Amanda’s thing. Another honesty neither one of us bothered to excavate.
“C’mon, you’re going to miss it here,” I teased, hating that it sounded a bit pleading.
“No fuckin’ way,” Bernie said. Then, in a bad Ben Affleck Boston imitation: “I’m puttin’ this whole town in mah reah-view.” We both laughed.
“Friends always, right?” I said, knowing it sounded childish. Wanting something childish. Bee rolled her eyes and turned into the parking lot of Dairy Queen where we’d have a milkshake under the fluorescent lighting just because it was what we’d always done and a ritual isn’t really anything until you complete it.
halley sutton spent her childhood traveling through tiny towns in the Midwest and writing letters to her favorite book heroines, although none were actually mailed. Her work has also appeared in Rose Red Review. She lives in Oakland, CA.