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"Nightclub Aquarium" by Ella Schwalb

They fell in love at a tropical fish store near the back, next to the mop which stood crooked and upside down in a green bucket, its handle leaning against the glass. That glass had no fish behind it. It was a glass in front of a tank which was a staging area of sorts for deliveries, as the new fish’s more permanent tanks were freshened up. The aquarium attendants would sink drops of pink and blue and green down alongside the water filter and wait until the chemicals reached their proper ratios, specific to promoting robust health for whichever type of fish had just arrived.

They would prepare the tanks unhurriedly, and of course this all happens while the new fish are in a particularly vulnerable way. They have been traveling in a sloshy tank, in a truck, in the dark back of a truck. The truck drove long straight miles on inland roads, and the fish had no way of seeing the cars outside in the night and in the day, cars that passed each other and hung back from each other--a rhythm that might have felt familiar to them even if the scale and directions were alien.

So then after many blinks in this kind of darkness, after so many dark blinks and shifts of the hums that rise up from different asphalt densities, the sloshing stops and for the first time sunlight slices through again and the driver fiddles with the lock--so loud! and then another sloshing that coincides with a lifting, and the tanks are stacked (usually just 5 or 6 but up to 15 or 20 depending) onto a dolly and rolled. Now the asphalt hum is a more direct touch through their water--it rattles and compresses them but it does not last for long. Up a ramp and into the back of the store where the hum is smooth and high and singing on the tile floors. Here the rolling stops and the fish are collected in a net. When the net plunges in, some pebbles are shuffled and kicked up. The pebbles might actually just be Nerds candy, and they fall up and back down slowly like snowglobe glitter as they settle. The net pushes against the fish’s side-flesh as they push back against it, since they are usually cornered against a wall when they are caught, and trying to go back towards the center and away from the net. Then they are flung up and dizzy, dipped down, put in a new tank (the staging tank at the back of the store) with new water which stings and tingles at first for a moment. And they stay there til the next transfer, which will happen when the chemicals are right and all the patching up is done.

They were both wearing puffy black parkas that day. It wasn’t that they fell in love there in the tropical fish store, more that he fell in love with her quickly there and she noticed.



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