A fish story, not about the one that got away, but the one that needs the right place to grow

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A fish story, not about the one that got away, but the one that needs the right place to grow

Sawyer and Tatum named the fish Heath Ledger after the actor's character the Joker in the Batman movie because of what looks like poorly applied lipstick around his mouth.

I came home one night to find a tiny orange fish swimming in a plastic bag on the dining table.

“That’s Heath Ledger,” my teenage son Sawyer said by way of introduction.

I put the bag up to my face to take a closer look. The fish’s round mouth was ringed in what looked like poorly applied lipstick. Heath Ledger, as the Joker in the Batman movie.

Sawyer’s girlfriend Tatum had given Sawyer the fish for their one-year anniversary. No fish bowl. No fish food. Just a fish in a bag.

I guess it’s the thought that counts.

I dug out a vase from the pantry that was kind of shaped like a fish bowl and unceremoniously dumped the fish in there.

I could see where this was going. I told Sawyer the fish would be his responsibility. (Kind of like the dog who sleeps on the end of my bed because I’m the one who feeds him, though Sawyer does pick up poo. Well, occasionally.)

“And if the fish dies,” I added menacingly, “so will your love.” It had, after all, been an anniversary gift.

He wrapped his arms protectively around the fish in the vase and carried it to his bedroom.

In the night, I heard a strangled cry and then Sawyer was at my bedroom door. “Mom, the fish jumped out of the bowl! I can’t find it!”

He couldn’t find it because he wasn’t wearing his glasses, but Heath was there on the blue carpet next to his nightstand. I scooped the fish up and put him back in the water.

“Your love lives another day,” I told Sawyer.

Why would anyone need more?

The next morning, the fish was alive and well, swimming in circles in the vase under a book Sawyer had put on top.

I sipped my coffee and checked my email, clicking on one from the residence life office at Arizona State University, where Sawyer will go in the fall. It explained all the options for dorm living and meal plans — and how much they would cost. I sighed.

Sawyer wants to live on campus. But we live so close to ASU, I can see it from my house. Students live on each side of us and catty-corner across the street, and they ride their bikes to class.

“Whatcha looking at?” Sawyer asked, coming into the living room. Before I could answer, he asked if we could go to the pet store to buy an aquarium for the fish.

In the car on the way, we talked about him living on campus. I argued that he has an ideal set-up, a bedroom and a man cave. Why would he want to room with another guy, not to mention sharing a bathroom with four other guys?

I lived at home when I was in college. I was the first in my family to go, and it saved a lot of money. It’s even more expensive now.

Sawyer spoke of being minutes from his classes, meeting other students and being able to study together, going to the library, working late in labs, and joining in on campus life.

And then, the ultimate jab: “You won’t be there.”

“Sorry, Mom,” he added quickly.

No, no apology necessary (though he could have sounded a little less excited about it). This is what almost 18 years of parenting have been all about. Raising an independent young man who could stand on his own two feet.

Isn’t that a bit … small?

Sawyer shifted back and forth from one foot to another in the fish section of the pet store. He picked up a small aquarium in a box, the Aqueon 1 Gallon MiniBow Desktop Aquarium Kit for $24.99. It seemed to have everything we needed: an aquarium, filter and pump and LED lighting.

A woman wearing a blue shirt and a nametag suddenly appeared and asked, “What kind of fish is it?”

“It’s a goldfish,” I said, smiling back at her.

That aquarium isn’t big enough, she said. She pointed to one a little larger for $49.99 and one the size of an ice chest for $99.99.

“It’s just a goldfish,” I said.

“What kind?” she asked. Sawyer and I looked at each other.

“A g-o-l-d fish,” I repeated.

Apparently there are lots of kinds of goldfish. She pointed to a wall of aquariums.

There were Fancy Goldfish for $31.99 each. (Thirty bucks for a goldfish? Then again, I suppose people spend that on the ring toss at the school carnival trying to win one.)

Ryukin and Oranda goldfish, both $5.49 each. Black Moor Goldfish, $5.99 to $7.49, depending on size.

It’s probably one of those, I said, pointing to the Fantail Goldfish ($3.19 each). Well, but without the fantail, I added helpfully.

(I’d learn later that it was a Comet Goldfish, 29 cents each.)

She frowned at me and waved over a man also wearing a blue shirt and nametag. A fish expert, she said.

“It’s just a regular goldfish,” I said. “You know, like the ones you win at the school carnival?”

Now they both frowned at me.

“Like the ones people keep in glass bowls on their desks at work?”


“Just a goldfish,” I finished weakly.

Goldfish need at least 2 gallons of water per inch of fish, the fish expert said. “How big is the goldfish?” he asked. The more room the fish had, the more he would grow.

I hadn’t thought to measure him. We were buying an aquarium, not an outfit.

The woman in the blue shirt and nametag crossed her arms. “You could relinquish the fish,” she suggested.

Relinquish the fish? You mean, give Heath Ledger to the pet store?

She nodded.

You would think the 6-foot-tall living, breathing, well-fed human child beside me would attest to my suitability to own a goldfish. Seriously, if a classroom of first-graders can keep a goldfish alive, so can we.

“No,” Sawyer said firmly. He would not give up this fish. Not if his love depended on it.

We took the aquarium in the box and tiny bottles of food and water conditioner to the register to pay. The woman in the blue shirt and nametag watched us silently, her mouth pursed.

A fish grows in Tempe

In the months since then, Heath Ledger has lived in his aquarium on the kitchen counter.

I feed him in the morning when I feed the dog. Sawyer feeds him at night — most of the time. I got home late one night, about 8 p.m., and asked Sawyer, “What did you have for dinner?”

“Oh, I forgot about dinner,” he said. He headed for the kitchen. “I’ll make something now.”

“Feed your fish while you’re in there,” I told him.

Tatum bought the fish a rocket ship for Christmas, and he swims circles around it. He seems happy.

When my cousins visited from Washington in February, Janet mentioned that the fish seemed too big for his tank.

I groaned. “Not you, too.”

But Heath Ledger did look bigger than he had a few months ago, though it was hard to be sure. Things always look bigger under water.

“He’s twice as big, Mom,” Sawyer confirmed as he grabbed a Coke from the refrigerator.

Janet asked Sawyer if he was excited about college in the fall and whether he would live in the dorm. “I want to,” he told her, with a side glance at me.

We had been to an informational session where professors had talked about how students who live on campus tend to do better academically. His adviser told us it would make it easier to work with other students and connect with professors.

Sawyer had started working so he could help pay for it. He applied for scholarships, too.

“It would be good for both of you,” Janet said. Sawyer grinned.

A teenager grows in college

In the kitchen, I thought about how the smaller aquarium had seemed practical and more economical, despite what the experts told me. Sawyer living at home also seemed practical and economical.

I thought about what the man in the blue shirt and nametag had said, how the more space the fish had, the more he would grow.

I thought about how much room an entire campus could give a college freshman to grow.

A few weeks ago, Sawyer and I sat side by side, my laptop in front of us, and filled out the application for a dorm room. He picked out a roommate and a meal plan, and we paid the deposit.

He really did need a bigger fish bowl.

Later, I would search online for a larger aquarium at a decent price. Not too big but something that will fit on Sawyer’s desk in his dorm room.

Where they both can continue to grow.

Reach Bland at karina.bland@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8614. Read more here.

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