There are many ways to kill a pet fish, and Adam Gopnik killed ours from the pages of the New Yorker. With callous disregard to the feelings of Golder the goldfish (who was “golder” than her two friends, GottaGo and Elephant), Gopnik talked about his 10-year old daughter and how he had tried to “fob her off with fish.” We were away at the time, but our subscription obviously arrived and broke Golder’s little fobbed heart. She was dead when our neighbor arrived with the next day’s food.
Like all pets, fish mean what we project onto them. As a graduate student, my pet hedgehog was accused of being lonely, sleepy, or hungry depending on which of the roomies was tending her at any given moment. In the Costume Shop at the Williamstown Summer Theatre Festival one summer, the best gauge of the mental state of anyone entering the room was what they said to the goldfish bowl at the door. Quite obviously it wasn’t the goldfish who was feeling “sexy,” “tired,” “paranoid,” or “hungover,” but that didn’t stop actors, directors, and designers laying themselves bare by noting those moods in the fish.
But, however displaced, those projected feelings are real. When we got back from holiday, my older daughter was upset at the loss of her fish. As she observed, Golder had always been a good friend to the other two fish. She’d always swum in the middle of the aquarium and she’d never fought for the sinking tablet food. It wouldn’t be the same without her. A picture was drawn, in memoriam. Taking her cue, her younger sister repeated the sentiments with more bombast and tears. Once having worked out these feelings, though, the girls were able to move on from their initial mourning stage and replace Golder with Golder II, aka Goldie.
Concern about how easily Goldie would fit in with the others faded as she proved as easygoing as her predecessor. We marked the day of replacement so we could remember Goldie’s birthday. All seemed to be going well, but a chill shivered down my warm late summer spine as I projected my own fears onto the fish. One day my girls might return home to find me too all fobbed out, only this time it probably wouldn’t be Gopnik’s fault. In that case, would they be able to replace me with Dad II, aka Daddy?