There are a few stories that have become staples in my repertoire. It seems that whenever I’m introduced to a new group or new friend, these are the tales that are told to break the ice, get a laugh, solidify friendship. I ended up telling it again recently for my new coworkers. Later, I wondered how many times I’ve actually told it, and then I thought maybe I should actually write it down, once and for all…
I was a freshman in college. I lived with Amanda, who still is one of the most unique and crazy people I know (this says a lot coming from me…). I never had a sister, but I would assume that if I did, the relationship would be similar to ours our freshman year: posters slathered all over the ways, lots of late night talks and secret sharing, random fights, tears, plenty of laughter, and at least one fight involving paint.
Like most newly christened adults feeling our way blindly through the training wheeled freedom of college, we decided we wanted a pet. Due to the regulations of dorm living (which I was willing to break my sophomore year when I got Benny with my 2nd roommate, Liz), we were restricted to a fish. Some time during first semester–September or October?–we purchased our obligatory college pet: the beta fish. We named him Luke Skywalker.
Luke’s home was on Amanda’s desk, but we both took care of feedings. Amanda was solely in charge for cleaning the water though, because I could not handle watching him jerk around for those few moments when we had to net him out to get him into a temporary holder while the bowl got cleaned. As far as fish go, I pored entirely too much energy and thought into the proper care and keeping of this fish. I constantly would double check with Amanda that she was feeding him proper and freaked out when she said she left him by himself over the long weekend for Fall Break (but did he have enough food? what if there had been some sort of emergency or the building caught on fire?). I was weary about Amanda’s nonchalance about the whole thing.
It was decided that when our longer break for Thanksgiving came up, I would take Luke home. I was relieved to know that Luke would be “in good hands” during the break, although admittedly nervous about how I’d clean his water on my own…
The week before the break was insane. Every teacher was cramming in last minute midterms and papers. I had only a few days to learn what my astronomy teacher had been teaching us the past few weeks (incredibly thick accent+no previous experience with physics+missing half the classes since they were at 8 a.m. = ohmygodI’mfucked). The week before our break included a lot of late nights, all nighters, and caffeine in various forms.
By the time my parents came to pick me up, I was exhausted. Like, dead-on-my-feet-I-no-longer-feel-human exhausted. This was probably my first time really experiencing this– late nights in high school did not compare to the torturous ways we would force our bodies awake for hours during my freshman year. It was like we were the prisoners and guards at Abu Ghraib. I was easily going on my 2nd or 3rd day with little to no sleep, so it was only a matter of 10 minutes before I began to doze after slipping into the back of my parents warm, cozy SUV. This would have been all well and good had I not been holding on to Luke during the car ride home. Ever have one of those moments where you have a flash of what could happen and then before you know it, it does? I remember thinking to myself that I better be careful or I would fall asleep and drop Luke’s bowl… before really processing that thought completely, or realizing I had fallen asleep, I was jolted back into extreme consciousness by the sensation of cold water.
“OH MY GOD. STOP THE CAR!!!!” I screamed.
“What’s wrong?!” My parents asked, alarmed.
“I DROPPED LUKE!!!”
We were only about 15 miles away from my college, in a town called Galena. Galena is a typical sleepy Eastern Shore community–most mom-and-pop type operations close early, with the only lights along the highway burning from the homes of families settling in for the night. Fortunately, there is a little convenience store along this route that was still open, which we just happened to be passing.
My dad pulled over into the shoulder and came around to my side of the car to investigate. I was able to get Luke back into his bowl, but in the panic of the moment, my dad did not realize this. He was searching for the fish on the floorboards while angrily muttering about the water and rocks I had spilled all over his car, scooping up the gravel and slamming them into the bowl.
“Where the hell is this damn fish?!”
“DAD! HE’S ALREADY IN THE BOWL!!”
The next step was to find water. My mom and I hurriedly rushed into the store, and clearly startled the workers and customers. They all stood and stared at us as we came in, frantically looking around the place for water, with my clutching the fishbowl with wild panic in my eyes.
I followed my mom as we headed to the drink aisle, grabs a bottle of water and poured it into the bowl. For the first few moments, this seemed to work, but suddenly Luke jerked uncontrollably and within moments, his little fish body was lifeless. As I watched my fish I die I realized oh my God–he’s going into SHOCK because we poured refrigerated water on him.
When we went up to pay for the water and I attempted to fight back tears, the clerk pointed to a sink behind the counter.
“If you would have said something, we could have given you some water…”
At this point, this information did little to console.
We told my dad what happened and I went over to the side of store, near the gravel driveway and built a makeshift grave for Luke. At this point, the weight of my sleep deprivation, coupled with the extreme sadness and guilt I felt at that moment completely overcame me. I began to cry, sob actually, tears of remorse, regret, and guilt for my dearly beloved fish.
I stayed awake the rest of the car ride as we made the rest of the 2-hour trek in silence, quietly crying to myself.
When I returned to school, I didn’t tell Amanda what had happened. I was too ashamed, too proud. Instead, I told her that I left Luke over my boyfriend’s house and so he was watching him. The plan was to eventually tell her that Luke died in his care. I don’t remember how I ended up explaining the departure of our dear pet (this might be the first time she gets the whole story…).
Days and weeks passed without Luke and life went on living, but every time I left Chestertown and made my way through Galena, I thought about that fateful night.
While that store held a sad memory for me, it was the place where dreams came true for someone else. Some time over my first Christmas break, a patron had purchased a winning lotto ticket from that little store. This was not only exciting for the winner, but the whole town. The store boasted being the place where the ticket was sold by displaying a huge banner that ran across the length of it:
IT HAPPENED HERE.
I saw this for the first time when I was arriving back to campus, just shy of 2 months from Luke’s demise. At first, I was startled by the sign–it was as if my tell-tale heart had somehow manifested the confession I was unable to give Amanda, or anyone else for that matter. At first, I bitterly drove past that sign, but with time, I couldn’t help but smile.
Yes, it did happen here. This is the site where a fish lost its life, a girl lost her pride, and a story that continues to shape who I am, happened.