At the outset of the pandemic, a Zen intensive with a most unusual sensei — my pet fish

Romeo is a fish that lives in our kitchen. My daughter chose him from a pet store four years ago, when she was 11. She bought him with her own money along with a square plastic fishbowl, white rocks and a decorative accessory: a mock-wood signpost that reads “beach” in jaunty letters with an arrow pointing the way. Ever since we brought him home, Romeo’s habitat has sat in the same place on the counter, next to a ceramic fruit bowl that rarely holds any fruit.

As Romeo was born a betta fish, and betta fish aren’t known for playing well with others, he lives alone. There is no Juliet. He is occasionally visited by our two cats, but I doubt Romeo relishes these encounters, which more closely resemble ambushes. The cats have never gone so far as full attack, or even paw-in-bowl, as far as I know, but slurping up a sip or two of Romeo’s water isn’t below them. Water, Romeo’s very lifeforce, the element necessary for his existence, is just a moment’s hydration to Seuss and Clyde. Eventually, we cut the cardboard side from of a box of Ritz crackers and placed it top of his habitat, red side up, because our neighbor told us betta fish hate the color red, and we didn’t want to upset Romeo — our aim was to help and protect. We placed a rainbow sock monkey atop the cardboard platform, to serve as Romeo’s personal sentry and cat deterrent.

At the outset of the pandemic, I joked that Romeo had agreed to be my mentor for “shelter in place.” He was a pro at lockdown, at awakening each morning to the same four walls, entertaining oneself, and experiencing the benevolence of someone else buying and delivering your groceries. He was fine being alone, with little to do. He was even graceful and beautiful while he quarantined — just look at that iridescent cerulean-to-cranberry coloring unfurl in his flowing, feathery fins as he swam about the place. We would do a Zen intensive, with Romeo as my sensei. We would call this course of study “100 Days of Romeo.”

It was a joke, but nevertheless Romeo quickly did become a source of inspiration and guidance to me during this time on earth. Right off the bat I noticed something obvious yet nevertheless astonishing: Romeo was still alive. When my daughter brought him home and named him so long ago, I figured this would go the way most kid/pet stories go — we would learn about death. Fish before him, and hermit crabs and fence lizards and frogs, have helped us understand that nothing lasts forever. Sometimes, these pets made it a mere matter of months. But Romeo lives. Four years and counting, Romeo is dominating at life.

Maybe betta fish are different than the other fish we’d had, I considered as our mentor/mentee relationship settled in. Maybe Romeo is totally supposed to still be alive. But no. A quick google search revealed that betta pets may live up to three years, if you’re lucky. One morning over coffee for me, a few tiny omega pellets for him, I asked Romeo, “What’s up, buddy? What’s your secret?” He only flipped a tail with a mysterious glint in his eye. I didn’t push it. I mean, do you really want to be the one to point out to a sentient being that by all bets he should be dead by now? Seems like bad karma to me. Nevertheless, the point had hit home. My sensei was a very old man.

My daughter long ago lost interest in Romeo. She’s almost 16 now with a driver’s permit and a boyfriend. No one else in the family pays the fish much mind. Every now and then my husband offers Romeo a hearty hello, but mostly, the betta by the empty fruit bowl is my fish now. And something happened along with this responsibility, and our 100-day Zen-quarantine experiment, and my slow acknowledgment of Romeo’s remarkable persistence at the art of staying alive. It snuck up on me quite suddenly, the way it always does, but there it was for certain, that most tricky human vulnerability — attachment.

I never was much of a pet person. My father liked animals a lot, as long as they lived in nature, in the forest or the sea, where they belonged. We never had animals at home. The cats that sometimes torment Romeo, I brought home as a pair of kittens for my daughters as a consolation prize after I left their father six years ago. I’m afraid, Romeo has helped me realize, I’ve become attached to Seuss and Clyde, too. Dammit.

With attachment comes worry. When I clean Romeo’s habitat, I worry. God forbid I kill him with soapy residue or water that’s too warm. I can’t leave town without worrying. Not because of the pandemic, but because of the pets. I don’t trust anyone to care for them. The cats, maybe, but not Romeo. They’ll overfeed him, or accidently spill something poisonous into his water, or torment him with the color red. I’ll come home and he’ll be floating. I couldn’t bear that. So, mostly we don’t leave.

Every morning now, well beyond 100 days into the pandemic, I go to Romeo in the early light. I hold my breath until I see him twitch. “Nice work, little buddy,” I murmur, and I don’t mean nice work for swimming in circles or dodging the cats — I mean nice work staying alive. “You’re doing a good job.”

Most of the time, my fish is hunkered under his “beach” sign, but he sees me coming. He swims to the top of the tank, his gorgeous red-blue fins feathering behind him in anticipation. For, I am groceries. Am I more? Questions like these are among the dangers of attachment. In these last months, I’ve fallen for Romeo. Not a romantic love, as might suit his name, but more like a parental love, or a familial love.

Familial love is the most dangerous kind, it turns out, because it can rip your heart out and throw it on the barbecue without any guarantee of anything in return. As an example, it would be nice if my three children liked me, that would be pleasant, but their affection is mainly beside the point. I’m already in over my head: I will love them no matter what. This is also what it’s come to with my sensei: I don’t so much mind if Romeo loves me back or not, as long as he stays alive. My love is more of a your-demise-would-kill-me kind of love — as might also suit Romeo’s name, come to think of it.

For I know that Romeo’s death, as we continue to endure the pandemic, would devastate me. I feel this truth when I watch his small precious being swim small laps. I feel this as a harsh twist in my heart, I feel this as a tightening to my breath, I feel this as tears springing to my eyes. Here, I encounter the deepest danger of attachment — fear of loss. The terror of the possibility that the thing you love will die and leave you forever.

And yet I know one day Romeo will die, as we all will. There is no avoiding that one. Already Romeo is a legend in my mind. Remember that betta we had for so many years? Remember how he taught us to hold on to each precious moment, while they last? Remember how obsessing about one small fish’s life as a virus ravaged the planet filled up space in my head that might otherwise be loaded with much more consuming ideations? Like the possibility of much more significant losses, for instance. My husband, immune compromised with half a missing lung. My mother, old enough to sit solidly in the danger zone. My daughter, who has asthma. I am all too aware that sooner or later, attachment will deliver loss, which will be followed by devastating pain, which is the price we pay for love. But without love, what is there? And so, we allow our hearts to open, we become susceptible even to the life of the betta that lives by the fruitless fruit bowl, all the while knowing the bill for our vulnerability will come one day.

And the “shelter in place” mentorship is complete, but maybe not quite in the way I thought it would go. “Romeo,” I whispered one cold December morning, when it was just the two of us, along with the lopsided monkey sentry. “Did you really mean for me to become more vulnerable?” Yes, my child, came the quiet response in the flick of his fin. That was my intention all along.

I will bawl my head off when this single $4.99 pet store fish moves on to fishy heaven. I might be the only one. The teenagers will look at me with wide eyes and my husband will pat my shoulder in befuddlement. And that will be okay. This love is between me and Romeo, and we both know he is worth it.

Fifth-generation Oregonian and writer, editor, publisher, author, mother. Essay is my favorite form. Beach is my favorite place. kimcooperfindling.com