As if things always had a way of returning to a previous state, she shrunk to that vulnerable ugly child learning that something could die. They were standing next to an antique shop that displayed red veneer chairs and card tables, five blocks from his studio. He said he was running late and he really couldn't talk. Just like last week. He didn't say it was over or please don't make another scene. Being that direct was never his style. Christ, I left you a million voice messages, she said. In a faux-frivolous tone, he insinuated that he was fickle as a fly. She imagined him trapped between Saturday night's moon girls and Monday morning's love child.
She loved him because he was young and cosmopolitan and temperamental. She loved him because he had raven river hair and magic bullet eyes, perhaps his mother's upturned nose and olive skin, the face of a French movie star she recalled as beautiful, one who died young and tragic. She loved him because they shared crackers and cheese in bed and he was greedy for handouts and second helpings of sex. His passion rained and tumbled over her until she was on her back again, a foolish middle-aged acrobat, a wannabe, too numb to feel her bones going soft. She couldn't remember when she lost her balance. She loved him because he was not a very tired or complex animal. In another part of the city, her husband advised couples on adjustable mortgage rates. 
At first, she didn't know who to hate more: him or herself. A taxi stopped and honked. She froze, felt like some waxed papier mache doll that could voice no anger nor demand that he accept a refugee from a country of slow unending rain. She had admitted to him that her marriage hit an impossible plateau, that she was addicted to his thrill and sting, and with his steps fading, she would remain his invisible prisoner. But now in the night, in the wake of the city's buzz and mania, imagining herself locked in that antique shop, she suffocated alone behind walls of engraved ginger glass. 
In the following weeks, she avoided the gift she was to give him - two koi fish, male and female, brightly colored. The male swam. The female lingered by the edge of the glass. That’s how she differentiated them. In Japan, they were symbols of love and were known to reach unpredictable lengths. It was her son, pudgy, round-faced as she once was, who showed more of an interest in the fish. He made faces at them, asked questions, like could they pray and cry like humans. Later, she herself spent more time studying them, as if they were mysterious pieces, movements of her stupid lust. She kept wondering where her invisible lover was and who he was with. 
She went on with her life, making beds and attending parents’ meetings, performing her day job as a help desk technician for senior citizens puzzled by their first computer or overenthusiastic gamers who crashed a hard drive. All the while, her invisible lover came and went, the memory of how he felt, his smooth body in her river overflowing its banks, the way they swam in his room all afternoon, under the city's dirty light. Sometimes, in the middle of a call, she excused herself and sat behind a bathroom stall and cried. Her invisible lover tasted of saltwater, lime, and froth, a sea god’s semen. 
Her husband now remarked how during sex, she resembled a semi-comatose woman, a facsimile of a wife. He accused her of clipped or vague answers. One day, she told him that their marriage was not “empty,” but “half-full.” He asked for clarification. She responded by asking why boredom was the natural state of things. With him, she thought, she died a thousand times. In the bedroom, he turned his head and gasped. He studied her eyes the way she did those fish. 
Boredom, he said, was the hole in everything. The problem, as he put it, was not to let it spread to a gigantic tear in the fabric of marriage. She tensed her cheeks as if hearing this from talk show psychologists, each a video copy of the other. Suddenly, she became envious of those silent squirming fish, perhaps mistaking the water in that tank for freedom. 
Her depression deepened, a parasite sucking the underside of her skin, and she nurtured it. She wanted to punish herself for being rejected by her invisible lover and being needed by her overly affectionate and tantrum-prone son, who at times, threatened to smash the fish tank. Sometimes, she wondered whether she could ever truly love her own flesh and her reflected faces. 
She would do nothing morbid or violent. Maybe she would color her hair a shade of silver or cut it. Maybe she would only shave her legs in certain places. Maybe she would stop picking bobby pins off the floor. Instead, she started to overfeed the fish. 
At night, she continued to sleep with the two of them: her husband and her invisible lover. She would kick neither out of bed. Her husband was a kind of dock that guaranteed a safe landing to a land-locked tomorrow of poor catch. And her invisible lover wiggled inside her, she, a kind of temperature-controlled aquarium that would hold him and the bright colors he once brought. She delighted in his stirrings. She would forever try to domesticate him and feed him bits of herself. Devouring him was her biggest joy in a floating bed of three.
And sometimes at night, after a bout of aborted sex, jettisoned or her love making with mistaken identities, her son would knock at the bedroom door. I’m hungry, he whimpered. You've already had dinner, she chimed, and you’re getting too fat. Go back to sleep. She waited for his tapering footsteps. It was then that she thought about the fish. 
She’d slip from the bed and tiptoe downstairs, study the fish, quieter than her own breaths, marvel at them as if they were stolen remnants of a dream she had earlier. You must be hungry, she thought, forgetting that she had already fed them only a few hours before. 
After she fed them, she returned upstairs and thought: Something is killing me. Something is starving me. She went to sleep but couldn't dream. In the morning, she woke up with a slight headache, a gnawing feeling that today would be no different than the day before. 
Later that day, she was reprimanded at work for becoming irate on the phone with a customer. The computer was a gift from his wife after forty years of marriage and the man had phoned a complaint. For minutes, she sat at her desk, hands in her lap, looking straight ahead. She felt she was the child made to stay after class for no other reason than that she was ugly. It was always her and that empty classroom. It was always her and the thick heavy air of the late afternoon, and how her thoughts drifted until she was someone older, willing to be dangerous, defying the adults who expected her to act the way an ugly child would--to remain hidden and boxed in by those who were fortunate and beautiful. She grew up to be pretty and mediocre, resigned to the multi-shaped stones under her feet, the repeating decimal of unaccountable days and rumors of happiness, the slow drowning called everyday life. She became the victim of another's long forgotten manifest destiny. Once upon a time, she had married for love and clear blue water.
One afternoon, her son called her into the living room. “Mom,” he said, “one of the fish is gone.” 
She put her laundry basket down and sauntered into the living room, stalling for an explanation. 
“It’s gone,” he repeated. 
They both stood before the jar. The blue and red koi, languid and twice as puffy, squiggled at the edge of the glass. If only it could talk, she thought. 
“Where did it go?” 
She rubbed a finger against the rosy baby fat of his one cheek. For a moment, she mulled over the color of his eyes, Sargasso deep and brown that reflected his father's, an endless sea where there were no scavengers or squid, only dying fish about to reach a kind of peace at the bottom. 
“Which one was it?” he said. 
“Which one?” 
“Yeah. The male or the female?” 
She watched the fish watching her. Her throat tightened slightly. 
“The male. The male is gone. But not really. She ate him. She ate him so he will live forever inside her. That’s what fish do.” 
He looked up at her with open jaw. 
She turned from his eyes, still questioning, and studied the single fish. Her lips parted. 
She so badly wanted to believe it.

Kyle Hemming lives and works in New Jersey. He has work pubbed in Ghoti, Slow Trains, Apple Valley Review,
and others.


Some reviewers thought I should have brought the son in earlier into the piece. But I left that as it was. Others thought I should change the title. The inspiration came from a Richard Gere movie where a married woman has a torrid affair with a much younger man. She also has a young son. In the original draft, I had the ghost koi kept in a jar. Some one pointed out that ghost koi can grow up to three feet. So I changed that from a jar to a tank.



Copyright 2009