The underside of the fish was the colour of the sky: an off smog. It was not a good day for breathing. Jeff prodded the floating corpse with a chopstick. ‘Sorry, Confucius,’ he said, though he was glad it was dead. Jeff inhaled the sweet vegetable scent of the gunk in the water, the slight chemical tang of it. Goldfish eyes stared with milky acceptance. Probably he forgot to adjust the pH level. Or Helen overfed it. She wasn’t up yet. He wouldn’t say anything now. He laid the chopstick on the kitchen counter, slipped out the front door, and went to work.
‘What the fuck am I supposed to do with a goddamn fish in a bag,’ he said, dropping the plastic on the kitchen counter and throwing himself onto the couch. His knees were sore. He could sense his mother still in the house and had an urge to rearrange the furniture. His parents had finally left, and amid those confused embraces in the plugged traffic, horns honking from behind, bicycle bells ringing, scooters beeping, his mother had handed him the goldfish. He had taken it almost without noticing, the stupidity of the thing hitting him only after their taxi had disappeared into the mass shambles of Beijing streets.
Helen picked the plastic bag up and held it to the light. ‘It’s fat,’ she said. She set her soapstone eyes on him. ‘They are good luck, you know.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘She could have given us something we could use.’
‘Yu means wealth,’ Helen said. Jeff rolled his eyes.
‘I know that,’ he said. ‘But my mother doesn’t speak Chinese.’
She managed to buy the fish, though. Must have been from the sinewy man on a tricycle who hung around the end of their street. One of the many creaky cargo trikes that hawk goods and services to the neighbourhood: knife sharpeners, cardboard collectors, sellers of cabbages and, yes, pets. The pet man unstacks his tanks and buckets to make a stall. Guppies, tiny turtles, snails, sometimes small white rabbits. A glut of fish.
Of course his mother was too short-sighted to buy them a tank, so for the first few days Confucius—the name was Helen’s idea—lived in temporary digs, a plastic juice bottle with the top cut off with scissors, until Jeff finally yielded to its persistence and bought a glass fishbowl, a squat sphere that sat like a model planet on the counter, in the place where he usually dropped his keys. For weeks Confucius did laps around its planet, glowering at him. Reminding him. He hated it. Its eyes took everything in and give nothing away.
‘Wow, look at all those fish!’ his mother said. He watched her lean over the stone bridge without putting her weight on it, because you can’t trust the buildings here, they are not like American buildings.
‘Yeah,’ said Helen, ‘that really is a lot of fish.’
Jeff tried to catch his girlfriend’s eye to transmit an apologetic expression, but his mother’s round face was in the way, smiling at him. It was the third day of their visit and she was still excited. She was proud of herself, making an effort. He smiled vigilantly back. Helen didn’t look up. She leaned her whole weight on the bridge, bent over the fish; a wing of straight hair closed around the single eye of the camera. A hand came up to adjust something. When she rose, Jeff’s mother had moved across the courtyard to admire a stone dragon. It was ordinary, but she couldn’t know that.
‘I love this lion,’ she said.
‘Let’s go see if the arhat hall is open,’ Jeff said. The arhat hall was his favourite part of the temple. All those smiling statues, like a wax museum, and their hands full of symbols, animals and instruments. Something Disneyesque about it, he’d planned on saying.
He headed off, leaving Helen to round up his parents. It was hot in the sun and sweat was pooling in his lower back, under the polo shirt. He could hear Helen in conversation with his father, her kindness frothing out of her like overboiled milk.
‘It’s a very nice camera,’ she said.
‘Actually, this model looks impressive, but it’s not all that expensive,’ his father was saying. It was a lie. The digital SLR he’d bought last year was top of the line, a ridiculous thing that required its own backpack.
‘See this setting. You know macro?’ Jeff cringed. Helen could have been a professional photographer, she was that good. He wished she’d risk more, believe in herself. But you can’t make someone else courageous.
The arhat hall was closed for repairs, and he found he had to wait for the others by the entrance, standing with his hands in his pants pockets in the hot sun, the concrete car park stretching inauthentically in front of him, and his parents and Helen approaching with their cameras held up, like a team of robots wielding mechanical probes.
On the way out his mother wanted to buy slices of melon on skewers from a stall, and he told her not to buy from those guys, they only cheat you, but Helen hadn’t heard him; she bought four of the sticks herself and handed them around. Too sweet, he thought, and twice what you would pay away from the temple.
The day Confucius died, Helen came home first, and when he arrived she was already sprawled on the couch, her shoes off, rubbing a toe that had been bothering her.
Jeff kissed her cheek, gave the foot a perfunctory pat, which excused him from a massage later, then got up to put his keys on the counter so that he could check on the fish. She hadn’t said anything and he was ready to pretend to notice for the first time that it was dead. He’d been preparing expressions of surprise on the subway. Confucius was still floating on the surface, suspended there, staring at nothing.
She hasn’t noticed it, he thought. For weeks he had been cursing the fish, willing it to die, but he couldn’t actually take the step of killing it—it seemed too brutal to poison his own mother’s gift, and he knew she would ask about it when he went home for Thanksgiving. Now he almost felt sorry for the fucking thing.
‘Helen,’ he said.
She had her feet up on the armrest and was unrolling her socks, straightening her toes. ‘Hmm?’
He wondered how long it would be before she noticed.
‘Nothing,’ he said.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. He made a move to sit down again but she made no room for him on the couch. She just looked at him, totally self-contained, and then bent in half to touch her toes. She could reach right past them.
He had made a little calendar on the back of a cereal box so they could cross off the ten-day visit, thought it would amuse her, but after four of the longest days of his life it seemed like the calendar was only helping slow the time down. He wished his folks had stumped up the extra cash and stayed in a hotel. He took long showers to avoid them, he let the water run cold. When he turned off the tap he heard his mother’s nasal voice, asking Helen the stupidest questions about China, her horrifying attempts to pronounce a few basic phrases of Mandarin. Helen, softly spoken, had a voice that didn’t tunnel through walls. He could only hear his mother’s half of the conversation, which went like this:
‘I’ll never forget all those fish.’
‘Do you eat those? Goldfish?’
He managed to get his parents to go out on their own for a couple of hours on a Sunday, promising to meet them for dinner at the gate of the Forbidden City, and when he had closed the door on them he cozied up to Helen on the couch, but she shrank away from his body.
‘It’s my parents, isn’t it,’ he said.
‘No,’ she said. ‘They are actually quite nice.’
‘Americans are so fake sometimes.’ He sat forward to untie his shoes.
‘I guess,’ she said.
When he thought of it after they had gone to bed, the fish floating there in its bowl, he should have flushed it but the plumbing here was so bad—he remembered they hadn’t had sex since before his parents had arrived, maybe even a couple of weeks before that, and he tried to put his arm around Helen but it slumped over her like a seal flipper and she flipped it back off.
‘It’s too hot,’ she said. ‘I’m not comfortable.’ He waited for her to go to sleep instead.
They used to have great communication, he thought. It’s not as if there was much of a language barrier, her English was perfect, but since his parents had visited it was like they had used up their conversation at the end of the day, used up all their nice.
In the morning he found her drinking green tea and fidgeting with camera lenses, her busy hands right next to the fish. He pulled up the opposite stool and sat down.
‘Everything okay?’ he prompted. He glanced down at Confucius floating in the bowl.
She stared at him. Her eyes were a closed black aperture. He wondered how long she was going to go on like this.
‘I’m going to work,’ he said.
‘I’m just going to finish something,’ she replied, her head down, her hands fiddling with the camera.
Alone in the crush of the subway he thought of something else his mother had said, when they were at dinner. A local Taiwanese place, Helen ordering food for them from an English menu, his own attempts to be breezy disappearing into the noise of the restaurant. A confusing moment when Helen translated his order to the waiter, from his Mandarin into hers. His father looking through the day’s photos, peering into the viewscreen of the ridiculous camera. His mother passing paper napkins around, even though they could all reach them.
‘You’re very brave, you two,’ she said. ‘Having a cross-cultural relationship.’
‘I think they all are,’ Helen said.
When he came home the apartment was empty. He dropped his keys beside the fishbowl. On top of the water, there was something floating: a piece of card. He fished out a glossy colour photograph. In the photograph, Confucius was still alive. Its expression was so blank that it could have been a rubber replica. He shook the drips from it and flipped it over. Nothing written on the back. He tapped the counter, thinking what he’d tell them at Thanksgiving. He’d sit down with his mother and tell her she shouldn’t be so naive. You can’t buy pets from those street guys, he’d say. They always cheat you.
Copyright Jennifer Mills 2011