I See France

How She Loves le Poisson

Last week we returned to Paris. Any hope that the French might have cleared out while we were away was quickly dispelled. Tabitha and Talullah were clearly delighted to be back. Both of them now feel that Paris is home. This only made me more depressed.

For the last month or so I have been even more disciplined than usual about avoiding unpleasant tasks. The cause and consequence of my indolence is a fish. The fish is the goldfish that came with the huge fish tank that came with our house in Paris. There was nothing in our contract about a fish; we learned of its existence the day we arrived. The owner, when questioned about how to keep the fish alive, made a show of indifference and suggested that we just dump it into the fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens. As the fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens was freezing over, this was obviously just a way to kill the fish without taking emotional responsibility. The only reason I didn’t do it was that trucking the thing across the garden in a bag filled with water seemed like even more trouble than keeping the fish alive in its tank.

And so from the day we arrived Tabitha dutifully dumped the stinky little, multicolored flecks they call fish food once each day into the tank. The fish prospered, and in prospering became, somehow, a member of the family. It acquired a name. Poisson. The key to Poisson’s survival was Talullah’s love for him—assuming Poisson is a he (how do you tell?). Whenever Talullah falls and lands on her head, which she does often, she can be soothed only by the sight of Poisson. Lift her face to the fish tank and instantly she ceases to howl. Poisson fills her with wonder.

The first hint that all was not well inside the fish tank came before we left for Rome, more than three weeks ago. One morning, while feeding the fish, Tabitha noticed that the water in the fish tank has acquired a dusky hue. There was no question about whose responsibility this was. She took care of the fish; I, therefore, must take care of the tank. My wife is a shrewd woman. In taking on what seemed like a mildly onerous task requiring a discipline that I do not possess (feeding a fish each and every day) she had avoided a truly disgusting piece of work. Poisson’s tank contained maybe 20 gallons of water, now laced with fish shit. It was too heavy to lift, and there was no way I was going to suck on one end on the garden hose with sufficient power to create a siphon. To do the job I would be required first, to capture Poisson and store him, and then carry the water, cooking pot by cooking pot, into the garden. Three hours, minimum.

I did my usual trick of adopting a tone of great authority and saying that a little gray water never killed a fish, and that if we just left it alone the filter would do the job. Tabitha knew as little about fish and fish tanks as I did, and so she let this pass. That’s the rule in our family. In spite of my proven tendency to avoid unpleasant tasks she is required to believe my excuses for doing so unless she has hard evidence that they are false.

When we returned from Rome the water inside the fish tank was distinctly brown, and Poisson was a changed fish. In the early days he would swim majestically back and forth; now he just hunkered down low beside the imitation Attic urn at the bottom of the tank. When Tallulah landed on her head and began to howl it did no good to lift her up to the tank: Poisson, barely visible, was a depressing sight. As Tallulah howled, Tabitha turned on me accusingly. “The smell in here is HORRIBLE,” she said. In my experience women are more offended by unpleasant odors than men.

In any case, my authority on matters fish would no longer go unquestioned. Thankfully, I was leaving the next morning for a week in the States.

Sometimes I think procrastination is more trouble than it is worth. During the week in the States not a day went by without a passing thought for Poisson, slowing suffocating in his own excrement. If Poisson died, it’d be my fault. Tabitha would lift the howling Tallulah up to the fish tank, and there’d be Poisson, floating belly-up on the surface. How would she respond? Would she be scarred?

Then a ghost from the past came back to haunt me, which is, after all, what ghosts are hired to do. One Sunday morning in the country, years ago, I woke up to a strange, desperate noise. I looked out the window. A skunk had fallen into our swimming pool. It was paddling back and forth in a frantic search for a way out that did not exist. I had a choice: Fetch the net, save the skunk, and be rewarded with a blast of skunk juice on my person, or go back to bed and wait for the skunk to drown. I went back to bed. A close friend, when he heard this story, said that my decision to let the skunk die was deeply revealing about my character. I assured myself that it wasn’t, mainly by feeling badly about the skunk.

The memory of the episode of the skunk raised the unsettling possibility that I was the sort of person who would use guilt as a substitute for action. How would I explain this to the new psychological authority in my life, my French teacher? From my initial get-to-know-you visit to her house—of which more, later—it was clear this strange, new force in my life would see right through me. I had put her off for three weeks. I was due for my first proper lesson/session in a few days. If I let Poisson die, a pattern would be established, and I’d either have to talk about it or be trapped in a psychological lie. By the time I landed in Paris I was a changed man. I had a new resolve.

The fish must live!