“You just have to turn it a little,” Deirdre is saying. I have a wire hanger dug deep into some muck in the bathroom sink.
“We should’ve used Drano,” I say, tugging the wire toward me. It seems to be stuck.
“That stuff’ll kill you. Poison.”
“But it works,” I point out. “This isn’t working.”
“If you can get the angle right, you can just…” and something comes loose, sending me backwards into the shower door. I’m on the floor with a mildewy towel on my head, still wet from the previous night’s shower. The wire is beside me and at the end of it is a goldfish, mouth still gasping for air. The fish’s mouth keeps working the oxygen, not even noticing that its guts are pouring out of it like a cream sauce, where the wire stabbed.
“Uh,” I say. Except she is unfolding another hanger. One eye closed, she peers down the drain like it’s a periscope.
“I don’t think that was the problem,” she says.
“Of course that was the problem. There was a fish in our drain!”
“No, no, I think I see something else.” She stuffs the wire down. “I think I might…” And then I notice the fish has stopped moving.
“It’s dead,” I say. She doesn’t turn around. With the towel in my hand I grab the tail and toss it into the small wicker wastebasket; a trail of creamed guts laid out on the floor. I hear Deirdre pop her lips, like she herself is a fish.
“Got it!” she cries. All triumph and strength, she works her way down the wire and tugs. First one small leg is waving about, tiny suction cups line the appendage. It’s an octopus. A very tiny golden octopus. It has a couple legs wrapped around the wire and is the same color as her wedding ring.
“Well, aren’t you cute,” she says, practically tickling its chin with her sing-songy voice.
“Deirdre, this is weird shit,” I say. Because it is.
The sink had been backing up for nearly a month. Tendrils of toothpaste would swim around the surface of the dirty sink water, before it disappeared down the drain, leaving a ring of dirt around the bowl of the sink, occasional turquoise flourishes of fluoride. It didn’t bother me, but a month ago, on one surprising and hasty visit to the room for sex, Deirdre pronounced it disgusting and said “that needs to be fixed.”
The guest bedroom and corresponding bathroom became my own after recurring episodes of banishment from our bed. I didn’t mind the plastic shower. I didn’t mind the Laura Ashley floral decor. Deirdre and I had been having issues. We had to talk. We both spat it occasionally. We have to talk. But we kept getting too busy, too preoccupied, too complacent. Maybe we were just hopeful.
Finally on a Halloween night, after she chastised the last trick-or-treater on how sugar would destroy them, I decided then.
I said, “Deidre, we have to talk.” She sighed her annoying asthmatic sigh and motioned me to follow her into the guest bathroom. I ran ahead of her and said “Let me just –” and I beat her to the tiny room, where I had left the remnants of twelve mini Twix bars. The room had become my private sanctuary for which to commit heinous crimes of gluttony and self-service. Or at least, she would deem it so. I stuffed the wrappers into my shorts and flushed the toilet. I made a pass at my hands under the cold tap. Even that small amount of water pooled there for a moment, a cesspool before finally draining.
“I didn’t hear you close the toilet seat,” she quipped and I turned to check my mistake. Surely I’d be busted. It was down.
“I did it quietly.” Ignoring me, she pushed me aside.
“Might as well get some of the stuff around the house done,” she muttered. “I’ll just have to do it myself.” But as I grabbed the heavy red bottle of Drano, she said there was a better way.
Several wire hangers later, we are no closer to marital bliss or an unclogged drain. She lifts the toilet seat lid and places the octopus in the bowl.
“A little water for now,” she says. The octopus stares back at me, miniscule knowing eyeball on its head. “Then we can figure out what to do with it. Now, let’s test it out.” She runs the faucet. First hot, then cold, until the sink fills. It is clear that it is still clogged.
“We should call a professional,” I say as I rise to stand beside Deirdre, wishing I could put my arm around her waist. It is a beautiful waist. When pregnant, she worried about the loss of her hourglass. But the sands never filled successfully and we never had children. After the third, she had grown bitter then sad then bitter again and here we are. I think she is getting back to sad.
“No, I can manage it,” Deirdre says. She gets down on her back under the sink. She shoves aside the extra toilet paper, hair dryer, and a stack of vintage Playboys. She is working a wrench at the pipes. I didn’t know she knew what a wrench even was. I had loved that about her, actually. Just when you underestimated her, thinking she was a cheerleader sorority type, she could lift a couple hundred pounds or she would quote Keats or Shakespeare or something she read in The New Yorker.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be right under it,” I say.
“Do you want to just do it then?” No. I didn’t really want to do it.
“I told you I think we should call a pro- ”
“We aren’t calling anyone. This is our issue. Our thing. We’ll figure it out.” But I notice she moves her body aside, just a little. She finally jimmies something free and the pipe opens up in her hands.
“A squid? A goddamn squid. What the fuck?” I call out.
“I think it might be a cuttlefish,” she says, “it’s cute.” She cups the creature in her hands and then sets it in the toilet to join the octopus, who is slowly climbing the walls of the bowl. Periodically I see a little golden leg waving over the side. The air is growing salty. The stink of low tide is settling in. The climbing vines on the wallpaper are beginning to look more like seaweed and I feel like I’m slowly drowning.
“Does this not seem weird to you?” I ask her.
“What? The fish, the dead goldfish. The fish in the toilet. In the toilet! We have fish in our toilet!”
“They’re called cephalopods, Andy,” Deirdre had wanted to be a marine biologist; she’ll tell anyone who’ll listen. But that was long ago and the most training she had had were a few class trips to the aquarium.
“Wait, there’s something else,” Deirdre says and I see her hand disappear into the pipe. The Playboys are getting wet. Very wet and I lunge toward them to save them. We used to look at them together, Deirdre and I. We’d laugh about Goldie Hawn perched in a gigantic martini glass and the absurd sexual styles of the seventies, but then kiss and it’d all be lush and incredible from there. Afterwards, we would drink ice water and turn on the white string lights in our bedroom. Brunch in the morning. Always. Depending on if it was a weekday or not, breakfast or brunch out after sex. French toast and pancakes and the salty crisp of bacon between our lips while we played a volatile game of footsie under the table.
She yanks and I see a purple thick finger emerge. First one. Then another. It’s a starfish. A fucking starfish.
“Starfish!?” I exclaim.
“Sea star,” she corrects.
“I know that. Did you know,” here I wanted her to see I wasn’t a complete moron, “I hear there’s some sort of starfish disease going around and they’re all turning into sludge.” She only looks at me. Dead eyes. Like the goldfish’s. Except with lashes. Long lashes that collect snow and tears in equal measure and with the wetness, it always looks like she is wearing mascara these days.
Right then I know it’s not just my fault. Or hers. I know that I still loved her and maybe she still loved me. But after all the strokes we made toward each other day after day, we got tired, and now we’re just barely treading water.
“Well. This one seems okay,” I say. I smile. I don’t know why. It seems the right thing to do. When she finally gets the body out of the pipe, we can see it’s injured. One of its legs is just hanging off. It’s hard to tell if it is in pain. Though I imagine it is. The star is resting in the palm of Deirdre’s hand. With a face turned away, how can you tell if it’s in pain?
“Hang on, little buddy,” I say to the mottled purple star. It seems to tense and becomes a more crumpled version of itself.
“Here, take it,” Deirdre says as she pushes it my way. I do not want to touch the thing. Who knows where it came from and anyway it was in our plumbing, which I know has got to be filled with dirty seething things. I back away.
“Andy. Take it. Just take it. It’s hurt. I’ll be right back.” I don’t want to. I want to absolve myself from any responsibility. I look at Deirdre. The false mascara is caking. She is about to lose it. She presses the thing into my arms and runs from the room.
I am holding a starfish. A sea star. Whatever.
“Are you hurting,” I ask it. I pet it with one finger. Its craggy skin is tough and so brightly purple I think it has to be a reaction to some chemical we humans have inserted into its habitat. It is harshly beautiful. I want to turn it over. See its face. So I flip it, but in doing so, it slips, slimy from the drain residue. I catch it by its injured leg, but then drop it again. It splats on the linoleum. There are a few lesions on the underbelly, I can see. I think it’s already dead. I think it was dead when we pulled it from the drain.
I look at the goldfish in its wicker wastebasket grave. At the toilet aquarium we created. I hear Deirdre returning. I slip my hand underneath the star. I hold it close. I whisper to it. Deirdre has a large plastic container with water. We usually use it for soup. I gently put the sea star in its new tank. I don’t tell her I think it is dead.
Jennifer Fliss is a New York raised, Wisconsin schooled, Seattle based writer. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications including, The Citron Review, Brain Child Magazine, Runner’s World, and Prime Number, and will soon be included in an anthology by Twelve Winters Press. More can be found on her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.
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