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My academic advisor wears reading glasses whose pearly lanyard wraps around her head. When she’s disappointed in me, she takes off her glasses, letting them hang dejected down her neck. Her skin glistens, toad-like, as I notice with many older women. My own has begun thinning recently, and I fear everyone sees. 

But my academic advisor, she does not care about my skin. I doubt she cares about me either. But she does care about the reputation of her creative writing department. The entire university already looks down on the Master of Fine Arts program as a factory for self-involved, pseudo-intellectual, needlessly-pedantic graduates who say a lot and mean very little. What I just proposed, she probably thinks will only add to that image. 

“So,” she sighs, the glasses tumbling down to her chest, “You’re writing a book about love.” 

She sighs again on the word “love.” The dust from her cramped office with its imposing wooden bookshelves and piles of old paperwork has crept into her throat and lungs. 

“Yes,” I answer, “For my thesis.”

“Do you really think you can write anything new about it? Anything writers before you haven’t already discussed?” 

“I mean, all writing is rewriting. No one has anything new to say, right? Everyone is just recycling the same ideas over and over.”

She leans back in her chair, a leather-and-wood contraption swallowing her tiny body.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” That’s one thing about creative writing departments --- they don’t even pretend to understand the line between their students’ personal and academic lives. 

“Yeah?”

“Have you ever been in love yourself?” she asks. 

“Of course.” 

“I say you marinate on it for a few more years, until you have some real worthwhile conclusions to make, and in the meanwhile, pick something more formative to explore, something to really aid your growth as an artist and a scholar.”

“Love is formative for me.” 

“You think that because you’re young. Just give it a little more thought. Come back to me Monday and we can talk again.” She’s already penciling in the appointment.

I later recount our conversation to Riley. He and I sit hunchbacked on a picnic table outside of the bubble tea shop, him on the table part and me on the bench. The evening sun glows pink, turning golden and regal everything earthly -- the parking lot spreading before us, the lazy cars rolling into the strip mall for cheap food and haircuts. 

Riley gave me a plastic cup of leftover tapioca balls from the shop, which stick into a brown, sweet, sticky mess in the bottom, like bloated frog eggs. I suck a few through a thick straw reserved for the milky tea that normally accompanies the balls. 

“See,” I tell Riley, “I think she still sees me as a college kid, like I’m gonna write something really childish and melodramatic, but clearly I got into the program because I have good things to say! And I’ve been out in the real world, I’ve worked real jobs and had real experiences, not like everyone that’s coming in right after they graduate college.”

“Damn.” 

“I’ve had some passionate experiences. Like, I’ve fallen in love at first sight, and gone through all the drama and the heartache that’s supposed to teach you stuff. And I’ve learned every lesson! And I want to write about it now! You remember, I’ve told you about the Italian guy.”

“Yeah.”

“I was twenty-two and in Rome for two months, and had a whirlwind romance. I think I was semi-conscious for most of it because the jet-lag had me sleepwalking through every day. And I was also dehydrating myself on purpose. They don’t have public bathrooms out there, so if you suddenly need to pee in the middle of the day, good luck. But I wasn’t just swooning because of no sleep and no water. Like, he told me he loved me in front of the Colosseum! Isn’t that just wonderful writing material?”

“Of course.”

Riley winces as I suck in more tapioca. His father’s latent diabetes kicked in after decades of hiding, and he usually warns the same will happen to me if I keep drinking cupfulls of sugary, syrupy spheres, the sphere that I wouldn’t have access to if not for him. He knows today is not the day to call me out though. 

“I’m old now, Riley,” I whine, “Not as old as my acade advisor, but still. Old and wise. I have things to say! I thought people would actually listen now.”

“I’m old and wise too, but no one listens to me. Literally all these high school kids, they come into work every day, and I try to tell them real shit, and they just roll their eyes when I look away.”

“They’re not gonna listen to you -- you’re their boss. And it’s not your job to teach them anything other than how to make bubble tea.”

“No, I know. I just wish there was someone who told me real shit when I was their age, you know?” 

He looks so suddenly sad, I want to hug him. But we’re not that kind of friends. 

The bubble tea shop closes early, before the sun sets. It seems to me like leaving the party before it has begun, watching all these greedy faces awash in the neon lights of other businesses, throwing their money everywhere but Riley’s lap. But I don’t know business, and he has kept the place open twenty years, so I never mention it. 

“Guess what,” I say. 

“Yeah?”

“Sylvia died.” 

“Oh man, I’m so sorry.”  

I smile, wave my hand, oh-its-nothing, she’s-just-a-fish. But his face droops with concern. 

“We should have a funeral,” he says. My heart feels gripped in a tight fist, in pain and yet safely held. Sylvia moved cities with me; she had been there for the most significant two years of my life, just sitting and staring and blowing bubbles, but always present. I remember telling Riley that, a while ago. 

“We’ll flush her down the toilet,” Riley continues, “But in a classy way. She deserves that.” 

“Yeah.”

“Unless you want to grieve in private.”

“No, I want you there.” I realize Sylvia has been in my life as long as Riley. I bought her two days before we met. 

I have been to Riley’s home more times than I can count, but he’s never seen mine. I only remember the atrocious state of every room when we’re standing in front of my door. 

“Hey, it’s really messy in there, so I apologize in advance.”

“That’s okay.”

“No, it’s not like cute-messy. It’s disgusting.”

“You’ve seen my house. It’s disgusting too.” 

I usually go to Riley’s house to help with his letter-writing campaigns. We sit on opposite ends of his long dinner table, envelopes stacked as high as our heads. Sometimes the letters are for prisoners in solitary confinement in need of kind words. Sometimes they’re for ederly people who have not a single living friend left. It doesn’t really matter, he says. He just likes the process, nice pen gliding on creamy paper, putting down the stamps, even tasting the glue as his tongue seals the envelope. He would write letters to ghosts or animals or cities, whoever, but if he can help someone, all the better. Maybe he cleans up before I come over, but his house is certainly not disgusting. 

As we enter my house, I feel his eyes on my couch overflowing with yet-unfolded laundry from weeks ago, towers of empty bowls and dishes growing ever-higher. I know he doesn’t care, but I don’t want him to see it. 

“I only saw that she was floating belly-up a couple hours ago,” I say, “I had a really short break between classes, and I came home, and saw that she was dead but didn’t really know what to do.”

“Did you cry?” he asks so softly, so innocently, the way a five-year-old would ask his mother emerging red-eyed from the bathroom. 

“I mean, yeah. I loved her.” I point to the ten-gallon tank standing proud and algae-free on a cabinet. My house may be a mess, but Sylvia’s was forever spotless. Riley comes close, his forehead on the glass, watching her float pale and small, an Ophelia pushed by the river-current of her filtration system. 

“This is the, what do they call it, viewing of the body part of the funeral,” he says. 

“Yeah. Do you want anything to eat before we commence?”

“That’d be nice.”

I go into the kitchen, quickly shoving a few stray plates into the sink, wiping some looe crumbs off the countertop. 

“Actually, I only have oatmeal,” I yell. He appears in the kitchen. 

“Oh that’s great, I love oatmeal,” he says.

“Okay. It’s only gonna take a couple minutes to cook.”

“I eat it raw.”

“Ew, are you serious?” I ask. 

“Yeah, my mom always gave it to me like that.”

“Let me cook it for you. It tastes a lot better.” 

“That means a lot coming from someone who eats straight tapioca.”  

I roll my eyes as I crouch to retrieve a pot. Pride gets the best of me -- sure I’m old enough to know how to make oatmeal from memory -- and I pour random quantities of it and water in the pot, settling on an arbitrary number of minutes to boil everything together. 

Whatever numbers I had guessed, they were wrong. The result is horrible, grey sludge, like glue full of gravel. I sprinkle heaping tablespoons of brown sugar on top, spread it between two bowls, hand one to him. I eat a little, and realize I will eat no more. 

“Wow, this is disgusting,” I apologize. “I promise this isn’t what cooked oatmeal is supposed to be.”

He’s spooning his own quickly into his mouth. 

“I dunno,” he shrugs, “I like it. A bit too much sugar -- that’s how my dad got diabetes, you know. But you’re right, this is much better than raw oatmeal.” 

We take our bowls to the couch. He spreads himself atop my piles of clothing. 

“You probably like it ‘cause I gave you the bowl with more sugar in it,” I say. “I need you to know that, ‘cause that’s a big thing. My mon, she was always a saint and I was a brat. I wanted the nicest piece of everything, the cake slice with the most frosting, the juiciest piece of watermelon. And she’d always give it to me. If my portion wasn’t enough, she’d give me hers. And I’d take it and think, I could never be a mother. I could never sacrifice my best piece of food for some kid.

“Good to know I’m just ‘some kid.’”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah. I’m honored.” 

I take his bowl, bring it to the kitchen sink. When I return, he’s again looking closely at the fish tank. 

“You’re gonna need a cup,” he announces. “To scoop her body out.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you gonna get another fish?” 

“I should, right? This is too nice a tank to waste. But I’m scared if I get another fish, I’ll forever just be comparing her to Sylvia, and that’s not fair.”

“I really don’t think the fish care.”

“Yeah, but I do. I’ll feel guilty.” I sigh. I sound as weary as my academic advisor. “Sylvia was my muse. I wrote my first story for my first fiction workshop about her.”

“I remember. You told me about it. You never let me read it though.”

“There’s no point in you reading my writing. You already know me.” 

The time has come to really say goodbye. I fetch a cup from the kitchen. I make Riley do the horrible task of fishing Sylvia’s body out from the tank. He does it gently, in one scoop, his back making the same soft swooping motion as when he seals envelope after envelope. 

We’re standing in my bathroom, a cramped space, our shoulders touching. He turns off the lights, “for ambiance.” I light a candle on the sink. 

“That candle smells really nice,” he whispers. He’s aware we are creating a holy space. 

“Yeah,” I whisper back. “The Italian guy gave it to me.” 

The candle had been our parting gift when the Italian guy drove me to the airport. We hugged and kissed, and as he drove away, I realized for the first time that I never learned his name. 

Riley’s face seems even older in the candlelight, its orange glow highlighting the lines etching ever deeper around his eyes and mouth. I’m sure my own skin doesn’t look so youthful either. 

We’re silent now, our eyes fixed on the pale fat worm-body that once was Sylvia. Death is ridiculous, really. How stupid she looks, just floating in a plastic cup. She just floated in life too, but that was dignified, slow, calculated, her pink skin catching sunlight if you looked at the right time. She had a spark of intelligence in her eyes too, I’m sure of it. Now, they’re clouded, forever dull. 

Riley passes me the cup, and I flip it over as smoothly as I can. The trickle of water into the toilet bowl sounds like urine, until that final plop, when her body has tumbled from my hands and into her watery grave. 

“Should I say I few words?” I ask. 

“Yeah.”

“Sylvia, you were a wonderful fish. I hope I gave you the best life a beta fish in captivity can have. May your soul find peace.” 

I push the toilet handle. With a woosh and a small tsunami, she descends down the pipes and into her final resting place. Riley and I pause in silence. 

And then, it’s over. We’re just two grown adults standing in a dark bathroom, huddled over a toilet. I look up at Riley and he gives me a small, sad smile. 

I consider myself pretty intelligent, my ego ballooning bit by bit after every positive critique from my fellow writing students. But there are things, obvious things, I forget and ignore. Like my being in love with Riley. The realization is small and warm in my stomach, the feeling after drinking hot tea. 

I’ll tell him later, when we’re not attending a fish funeral, when my house is cleaner, when I can cook a proper bowl of oatmeal for him. For now, I have two days to draft a completely new thesis for my academic advisor. She was right. There’s absolutely nothing to be written about love. It is so slow and gradual and boring, I feel weary at even the thought of making a whole book about it. 

August 10, 2020 17:25

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2 comments

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06:42 Sep 03, 2020

Beautifully written!

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Masha Kurbatova
13:09 Sep 03, 2020

thanks so much <3

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