The Imperfect Aquarist

Photo by Faris Algosaibi

by Laura Jackson Roberts
A Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2021

issue 73

When a betta fish reaches the sunset of his life, he doesn’t drop dead. Rather, he withdraws, sinking to the bottom of his tank as his energy slips away. It’s the fish way. I’ve never seen a fish keel over from a heart attack. Their lives end as they begin, with slow, deliberate steps from somethingness to nothingness, pulling back into the deep parts of their habitat. They wait to die until the world around them is quiet.

And then, off they go, with a flush.

I keep tropical fish. The hobby blossomed in my twenties, before I had children, when I had time and energy. One tank became two. Two tanks morphed into one giant tank and a few more on the side. I kept clown loaches and gold barbs and Congo tetras and an electric ghost knifefish. Fish in the basement, fish in the den. Fish in the kitchen.

Mr. Betta wasn’t the first beautiful Siamese fighting fish to grace our eating space; he was the fourth. Bettas don’t happen intentionally in my family. It’s not a fish I set out to purchase but one that finds his way into my shopping cart when I’m looking to purchase dog food or alfalfa for the guinea pigs. Pet stores stock bettas by the dozen, and the betta displays are a sad sight. The betta is known for his ease of care, for his adaptability to tiny spaces. He can live in a cup, the pet store will assure you. He sips air from the surface and doesn’t need a filter or an aerator, they say. He can just sit in a jar on your desk and stare at you all day, waving his fins and adding a splash of color to your expense reports.

If you don’t inherently suspect the bullshit in this claim, then you don’t deserve a fish. Go buy a hamster. I hear the Russian Dwarf breed is cute—they stuff things in their cheeks.

The betta originates in the Mekong basin. Common misconception holds that they live in the puddles that collect in buffalo footprints, but they actually make their home in small sections of slow-moving streams. They are aggressive and territorial. Male bettas will fight to the death, and even a male’s own reflection can stir his ire, triggering a showy display of fins flared in fishy rage. Females can have problems getting along in close quarters, too.

Of course, in pet stores, we see them stocked on the shelves in small pieces of Tupperware. They look miserable, suspended in their plastic prisons, fins often drooping with disease. In any group of betta containers, several are always dead, decaying on the bottom, while a few others hang on the brink of death. This is when fish people get weak. It’s the same reason why the vile pet stores that sell puppy-mill puppies never quite go out of business. We know we shouldn’t support them, that our purchases only serve to keep the puppy mills in the black. But that dog, it’s so pitiful, so obviously sick, and so desperately in need of rescue. This is what happens to fish people when we go to the pet supply store. We’re buying a bomber jacket for our wiener dog, and suddenly we connect with one sad fish and put him in the cart. There’s always room for a betta somewhere in the house.

This is how Mr. Betta came to live on my kitchen counter beside the coffee pot. The other fish lived in glass aquariums, or fancy, curved acrylic domiciles, but Mr. Betta seemed happy in a cheap, plastic tank. He always came out from his lurking spot behind the Java ferns to peer at me. Though his house wasn’t expensive, it had a large footprint, warm water, and excellent filtration, and it was a far cry from the cup in which he’d spent many weeks waiting for the right family to come along and purchase him. Unfortunately for Mr. Betta, by the time he found us, we’d already done the betta thing several times.

Because he was the last of many, Mr. Betta didn’t even get a clever moniker. We’d already named, enjoyed, and said goodbye to Jaws, Jerkface, and Rhaegar Targaryan, and the kids had lost interest. Mr. Betta’s presence in our lives was a clear case of me forcing another pet upon the children because I needed to atone for my sins.

Mr. Betta’s predecessor, Jerkface—who was named by my boys—had lived a full life with excellent care: he had a filter and a heater and live plants. He had water changes and special betta food and a group of tiny catfish friends called pygmy corydoras that darted about the sandy bottom of his expansive tank for company. Until the incident.

The bubble nest is a male betta’s most important work. Bubble by tiny bubble, he blows them into a glob that ends up looking like a spitwad, and he tends to it laboriously and with great pride. A female betta will choose her mate based on the quality of his bubble nest. And though Jerkface had no females to impress, he put his tiny heart and soul into his efforts.

Into the night, Jerkface labored. But he constructed this great work next to the filter, and as he tended to it that night, he floated closer and closer to the intake, no doubt unaware that I had forgotten to replace the filter guard after a water change that morning.

There’s a scene in Disney’s Finding Nemo when Nemo attempts to break the fish tank’s impeller by tossing a rock into the mechanism. For a moment it works, and then suddenly the rock slips out, and the impeller sucks him in, and at the last moment his friends use a plastic plant frond to pull him out. Well, nobody came to save Jerkface from his fate. In the morning I found what was left of his body, mauled by the impeller, clogging up the filtration system. I’m sure he never saw it coming.

Jerkface’s death hit us all hard.  Well, that’s not really true. The kids said, “Eh, that sucks. Poor fish. Can we have our Easter candy for breakfast?” I, on the other hand, was devastated. For an hour after I’d flushed his mangled remains, I sat beside his tank and stared at his last endeavor: his bubble nest. And even though the boys barely reacted to the seven-second announcement about the betta’s death, I insisted we go to the pet store at once to replace “their fish.”

And so we chose Mr. Betta, who really didn’t hold the kids’ attention the way Jerkface did. The betta shine had worn off, and now he was just another one of Mommy’s finned friends. They showed polite interest, and my youngest, who was only four, referred to the new fish as Jerkface, because even though Jerkface had been blue and Mr. Betta was red, in his mind it was the same entity, and neither was particularly interesting anyway. After all, he couldn’t cuddle a fish or interact with a fish. And though I and other betta aficionados will tell you that the betta comes to recognize his owner and will approach the surface of the water for his food, and he even learns to waggle his fins with what we anthropomorphize as a happy greeting, that’s not enough to stimulate adoration in a young child.

So, Mr. Betta was my charge. In the beginning, I maintained his tank and always made sure to triple check the impeller guard when I did a water change. I provided a river-like substrate and a floating log for him to lurk in. I kept his tank tidy and his live plants trimmed. And he shared his life with a troupe of ghost shrimp, showing particular interest in their busyness. Though a betta is a surface-dweller, he made it a regular habit to swim down and greet them when they darted around. I didn’t love Mr. Betta with my whole heart, but he was a cool dude, and he always seemed interested in me.

I interacted with Mr. Betta on the counter when I made my coffee and toast, but after so many bettas, tanks, and fish, I started slacking. I tired of scrubbing algae, of all the water changes. I let filamentous algae build up in the big aquarium until the fish were swimming in a mass of green Medusa hair and the invading growth swallowed up all of the CO2 and choked the plants.

I guess I’m an imperfect aquarist.

* * *

After a year in the kitchen, Mr. Betta didn’t look so perky. He wasn’t old, but his fins were ragged on the edges, and though I treated him with medicine for ailing bettas and changed his water regularly, he languished in his tank, and my attempts to reanimate him were met with continued decline.

The choice to keep fish says something about the pet owner. In my family, we’re mammal people. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and ferrets…these are our traditional and beloved pets for a reason. They reflect our moods; they buoy our spirits. We keep furry creatures because the act of touching and talking to them comforts us, and in their large eyes we see something of our own infant children.

I often think that if I wanted to be a rich woman, I would open a doggy daycare and spa. People will pay anything for the comfort and pleasure of their pets. I know this because, at one time in our lives, even though my husband and I did not have a huge bank account, we had our collie-doodle groomed at a doggy spa. While I was happy to pay for a basic haircut and to have her nails and anal glands done, the bill he racked up when it was his turn to drop her off soared well into the ninety-dollar range.

When they handed me that invoice at pickup, I felt weak.

“Ninety-four dollars?” I said to the receptionist. “You have got to be kidding me!”

“We did what your husband asked us to do. Would you like to see the itemized bill?” She pushed it across the counter.

“What is this twenty-seven-dollar charge? This one, right here?” I pointed to the Special Extras column.

She scanned the invoice.

“That’s the blueberry facial he ordered for Nugget.”

That evening I asked him what the hell was wrong with him. He didn’t answer because he had buried his face in our dog’s beard and was inhaling deeply. And I had to admit, she was one sweet and fruity doodle.

Nobody is ever going to order a blueberry facial for a fish. However, we fishkeeping folk are pet-lovers too. Fishkeeping is like gardening, in many respects; it’s an art. Not only do we want to keep and enjoy our pets, but the tank is an opportunity to create a world of our own. It may be one of the only truly permissible experiments you can carry out with live animals.

I’m not sure that aquarists can always put a finger on why they’re drawn to fishkeeping. But it’s like tattoos: your first tank invariably leads to many. Salt tanks, fresh tanks, cold and tropical tanks. Cichlids and koi. Plants and CO2 injection systems. It becomes an obsession. Your YouTube history is full of how-to videos. The guys at the fancy aquarium store an hour away know your days off. And the Petco employees who don’t know fish at all become your worst enemies. You lurk in the fish section, pulling customers aside and giving them your own, far better advice.

“I wouldn’t recommend that plant. They’re trying to sell you emergent vegetation, not sub-aquatic vegetation. Don’t buy it.”

“That’s an HOB filter. You need a canister filter. Put it back.”

“This is a Lake Malawi Cichlid. He’s going to eat everyone in your tank. You don’t want him. Dammit, just give me the bag.”

Type A people love fish. Not just because we can maintain obsessive control, but also because we are wound so tightly that we need the calming effect. The way that treasure chest fills with bubbles and then opens its lid and they all burst out? Fucking magical. Suddenly, things like the stink you can’t locate in the pantry and the way your mother-in-law describes your meatloaf as “chewy” don’t matter, because there goes that little blue guy! Look at the stripy one! She’s in her cave. Oh, and there’s a snail. It’s like a slimy little puppy!

Despite my efforts, Mr. Betta continued to decline. Happiness dwindled into listlessness. Listlessness withered to lethargy. Lethargy melted into limpness. And while a healthy betta spends most of his life near the surface, gulping air, Mr. Betta hovered at the bottom of the tank, resting on a rock. He perked up when I tapped on the glass, but it was clear that he was in the twilight of his life and night was fast approaching.

This is when the fish-keeper has to start considering her options. Aquarists talk and talk on fish forums about the ethics of fish euthanasia. Most of us have, at some point in our childhood, come home from the county fair with a feeder goldfish in a bag, only to have it turn belly up within a day or two. And where does the little orange cadaver go? To the bathroom, of course, for proper burial at sea.

I never liked burial at sea. Once, as a child, my white fantail goldfish died, and rather than flush it, I filled a Ziploc baggie with water, placed the corpse in it, sealed the bag, and buried it under a half-inch of dirt. Right by the front steps, between my mother’s yew bushes. I’m sure my father found the intact bag of foul fish soup when he raked the leaves in the fall. Nevertheless, flushing a dead fish down the toilet makes sense. It’s quick and it’s odor-free. And there’s no body for your children to find if you’re of a mind to replace Fishy before they get home from school.

The problem with burial at sea is that some people use the porcelain express to dispose of a not-so-dead fish. Maybe they’re tired of their kids’ goldfish. Maybe little Benny wants a pair of parakeets. No, his mom says. Not until your fish is gone. Flush. Done. Bring on the budgies.

A devoted fish keeper would never flush a live fish. Though the sewer system is filled with water, it’s filthy. The fatal trip ends in a drain, or a grate or, ye gods, a septic tank. And though the amount of pain fish feel has never been scientifically determined, a flushed fish is going to suffer a miserable death. Bettas have been known to live for days, post-flush.

So if your sweet betta is dying, you may want to ease his transition. (I’m not being gender-biased here; most bettas kept as pets are male due to their brighter colors and elaborate fins. Some fish people do set up a carefully assembled tank of the plain-looking females known as a betta sorority. Sometimes they get along and have pillow fights in their underwear; sometimes they have to be separated after one betta gets too high and mighty and starts acting she’s better than the rest.) When it comes to ending your little buddy’s suffering, there are several good options for fish euthanasia, and some really bad ones, too.

Do: anesthetize the fish in a bowl of water with a few drops of clove oil. He will go to sleep. Add another few drops. He will die quickly and quietly.

Do: decapitate him with a very sharp knife in one swift stroke. This one is a toughie, especially if you’re attached to your fishy friend. But if you’ve got the intestinal fortitude, it’s quick and merciful.

Do: use blunt force trauma to end his suffering. Perhaps even harder than cutting his head off is smashing it with a hammer. And for fuck’s sake, don’t miss. As rough as this option sounds, it’s on the list of approved methods of euthanasia.

Unfortunately, the cruel and unusual methods of euthanasia are more well-known than the humane methods. I mean, where do you get clove oil? By the time you’ve combed seven grocery stores and two hippie-dippie herbal shops to find it, Goldie’s been rotting for four days. Maybe if you’re going to keep fish, you should keep it in the house. Clove oil can also be used to maintain good dental health, treat acne, and as an aphrodisiac. Because nothing gets you in the mood like saying goodbye to your finned friend.

If you’re going to euthanize your fish…

Don’t: freeze him. I did this once, before I knew better. I put a tiger botia in a Tupperware container full of water and stuck him in the freezer, thinking he’d go gently into that good night on a bed of frozen carrots. An hour later I had a fish-cicle. Eventually, I read that ice crystals would have formed in his tissues as he died, causing extreme pain on his way to the afterlife.

In the popular Rainbow Bridge story, our beloved pets go to a green meadow just outside the gates of Heaven to wait for us. When we arrive, we cross together in joy and love. However, in a slightly different version of the Rainbow Bridge story, our pets judge the quality of our souls, either letting us through the gates or turning us away.

That fish could be up there right now with his clipboard, waiting for the day I die.

“Okay, the dogs all say you’re good to—wait a minute. I remember you! Well, well, well, if it isn’t the lady who stuffed me in the freezer. Step out of line, ma’am. Have you brought your bathing suit?”

Don’t: boil him. I shouldn’t have to explain this, but in case you’re wondering about death by boiling, just look at a piece of raw chicken dipped in boiling water for a few seconds. The outside may be cooked, but that sucker stays raw on the inside for a long time.

Don’t: dip him in alcohol or Alka-Seltzer. What the fuck? Who are these monsters?

Now, if you’ve euthanized a fish in one of these barbaric ways, it’s okay. We all make mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up. The fish with the clipboard in your afterlife will take care of that.

By the time Mr. Betta got sick, I’d kept aquariums for years. I knew how to properly euthanize a fish. But that didn’t mean I was cut out for it. And after my blunder with the freezer, I preferred to let fish die on their own rather than make such an ugly mistake again. The betta, though, wasn’t dying quickly. In fact, he was crawling towards his end in a most gradual way, declining by a tiny percentage each day. I’d find him lying on a rock at the bottom, fins splayed out in theatrical mortality, but at my approach he’d perk up for a moment, long enough to indicate that he clung stubbornly to the life left in his body. Day after day I found him “dead,” and day after day he proved my judgment hasty and premature.

Attachment to a larger pet—a dog or cat—would have made this process unbearable. That’s why we end up at the vet when our pets are suffering: we can give them the gift of release. With a fish, it’s different. Dying is usually a spectator sport. The vast majority of fish owners aren’t sharpening their knives or rushing to the cabinet for clove oil. In fact, I’d bet the average Joe doesn’t notice much at all until Nemo’s already belly-up and the kids are sobbing.

I couldn’t stand to watch Mr. Betta’s suffering. After a week of is-he-or-isn’t-he, I just wanted the damn fish to get it over with already. Also, I’d seen a bread box at Bed, Bath & Beyond that matched my stainless steel appliances and perfectly fit the space on the counter where the tank sat. And I’m not going to lie about the fact that I had a coupon that was going to expire soon. But mainly, I couldn’t stand his suffering.

After almost two weeks, I found his body, lifeless at last, tangled in a Java fern. I felt sad for a moment, and I watched his dead fins swaying in the current. Then I got out my siphon and began to drain the tank. Without water, it would be easier for me to net the body and get it to the toilet for his memorial service, at which I would be the only mourner.

As the siphon sucked the water away, I knew that Mr. Betta would be our last betta for a while. The kids had lost interest in fish. I still had a 55-gallon aquarium in the living room and a koi pond outside to care for. One of our female guinea pigs had given birth to twins, souvenirs from her time at the pet store when she was improperly housed with a handsome young boar named Chuckles. The two dogs, the two cats, the four rodents…it was all too much for me, I thought, as I removed the light fixture from the tank and plucked the live plants from the soggy gravel. I pulled out Mr. Betta’s rocks, deconstructing the crevices where he rested when nobody was in the kitchen and there was nothing to watch from his window. How many cups of coffee had he seen me pour? How many pieces of toast? Though he’d been a quiet presence at our meals for a year, he was never quite part of the family, more like a houseplant, there to offer visual interest in a utilitarian room. Half the time we forgot his name and called him Fishy. He hovered somewhere between hobby and pet, but I really had liked him.

Poor little fish, I thought, as I carried the tank to the kitchen table. There he lay in the drying gravel, his colors faded now that his life force had drained away. When he was alive, his billowing fins made him appear larger than he was, but in reality, his body was smaller than my pinky finger. It lay against the river gravel, no longer brilliant red but the color of mud. I still didn’t want to scoop him out—I was putting that chore off for last since it was the most unpleasant, and I’ve never been particularly fond of handling dead things. I pulled the last Java fern out and transferred them all to the 55-gallon tank, rinsed out the filter in the sink, and laid it out to dry. Then, I got out a cutting board and made a sandwich for lunch, eating while I worked.

Finally, it was time to get Mr. Betta to his appointment with the city sewer system. Using the net, I reached into his tank and separated his body from the gravel, lifting him gently out of his home and securing him in the mesh. I studied him for a moment.

And then, Mr. Betta flopped.

He flopped in the net, jerked his head up once, and twitched before he settled. He took a visible breath.

Holy shit! Not only was he alive, but I’d left him there to dry out like a raisin in his tank as I drained the water, deconstructed the aquascaping, and ate a turkey on rye.

I froze. This was an entirely unexpected situation: a fish, back from the grave. Unfortunately, he hadn’t come back very far. He was still almost-dead, barely breathing. What had I done and how was I going to undo it? His tank was disassembled, his conditioned water long gone. I might have tossed him into a nearby cup and held it under the tap, but I didn’t. I just stood there, eyes bugging, in the middle of the kitchen. What good would life support in a Pilsner glass have done, anyway? He certainly wasn’t getting out of this alive.

I considered my options. No clove oil in the house. The freezer was out. I was pretty sure I was already going to hell for icing the tiger botia and chopping up Jerkface, but maybe if I did a better job with Mr. Betta I could negotiate my way past the Rainbow Bridge. I had no intention of flushing him down the bowl with even an ounce of life left in him. All I could think about was avoiding yet another mistake. I’d been a bad fish-keeper, and I had to make it right with the universe. I had to make at least one good decision on behalf of this dying creature. My little friend.

I looked at the fish. I looked at my sandwich. I looked at the cutting board.

No one will ever describe me as nimble. I’ve fallen up stairs, down stairs, and out doors. I can’t hit a ball, catch a ball, or throw a ball. But the swiftness with which I whipped out that meat cleaver from the knife block would have made a samurai weep.

On the day I got my first fish tank at age five, I couldn’t have imagined that I would someday be standing in my grown-up kitchen, amidst maple cabinetry and engraved stemware, with a pet fish on a wooden slab and a meat axe in my hand. But here I was. I’d gone from world-creator, tender of river grass, and mother of eclectic, electric fish to human guillotine.

I didn’t hesitate, though. The cleaver came down with a monstrous thud. I didn’t miss. I didn’t screw it up. In a heartbeat I’d severed Mr. Betta’s head from his tiny body and put a final end to his miserable last hour. I don’t think it was atonement, exactly, but it was mercy. And after everything I’d put him through, and his brethren before him, it was the least I could do.

Though I acted out of kindness, I was horrified when the deed was concluded. It’s one thing to summon the courage and will to act in a moment of determined panic, when you know an animal is in agony and you, as his keeper, are the only one capable of ending that suffering. It’s quite another to face the aftermath. There was a tiny, bloody fish head on my cutting board. It was gruesome. The fish was no longer recognizable as his former friendly self; he was just a thing to be flushed. I did, as quickly as I could, without any words or gestures or thoughts, other than revulsion. Then I soaked the cutting board in bleach. When the kids got home, I told them only that the fish had died. The news barely registered.

In the following years, the number of tanks dwindled. The 55-gallon became a holding place for the last three fish. I was an aquarist for 15 years, and now I was ready to tear it all down, to create a cozy reading corner with a wingback chair and no chemicals, hoses, or hard water stains. Most importantly, I was tired of the responsibility. I didn’t want to have to scrub algae, test for nitrates, or judge the quality of lives. When my son’s teacher started a classroom tank, I donated my last three fish and disassembled my big aquarium. It went to the attic, though sometimes I wonder if I’ll resurrect it when I start to miss world-building and the gentle way a betta greets his owner with waving fins. Until now, I’ve not told anyone about Mr. Betta’s end; it’s never easy to admit you made a mistake that took a decidedly French-Revolution sort of turn.

Before he lost his head, Maximilien Robespierre said that pity is treason. Indeed, when it comes to ending a fish’s suffering, pity can drive action or inaction. It’s no fun to watch a slow and painful decline, but nobody wants to pluck a knife from the butcher block and whack off a head, either. Whether as spectator or executioner, there’s no easy way to lose a fish. Choices come with the aquarium lifestyle, and each fish-keeper must make them when it comes to her worlds.

Keeping fish is different from keeping other pets, and that’s precisely why we do keep them. While the cat could care less what we want from it, the fish tank is our world, a place where our laws stand. We create an ecosystem and pick specific creatures for it, and then we watch how it all shakes out. We’re gods, and we have all the inspiration and all the responsibility that comes with divinity. From the birth of guppy fry to the farewell to beautiful friends, it’s part of the deal.

Even the accomplished aquarist makes a mistake now and then; the imperfect aquarist makes far more. I don’t regret the beheading, but I never did it again. I’d lost the stomach for mercy killings and went back to watching sick fish sink into oblivion, moving from somethingness to nothingness to a solemn flush of the commode. After all, the aquatic life is a hobby that takes guts. And I’ll have to wait until I get to the Rainbow Bridge to find out if I had enough.