Little Fish by Aja Gabel

Top of a journal page. Text reads:
Aja Gabel
Little Fish
Winner: Phoebe Winter Fiction Contest
I'm not writing to remember. I'm writing to know what my memories are worth. The only thing I need to remember anymore is that remembering isn't important.
(In bold) August, twenty-six months ago.

This is my earliest memory. I was twenty-nine. The last waterslide park in northern California was closing at the end of the summer, and I felt I owed it to my childhood to take one last run. I shivered in the wind at the top of the snarl of the plastic slides, picking at my old, too-small bathing suit and clutching a limp inner tube in a line full of chattering schoolchildren. I saw him across the platform, another person too old to be there. He was handsome and he smiled at me and I thought our cheap nostalgia made us kindred spirits.

For a moment I forgot to smile back. I wondered what childhood memory he must have been reliving then with his sheepish smile, an inner tube looped around his own waist: his eleventh birthday party, lanky boys racing up the stairs to the top of the slides again and again, until they were too exhausted to make the climb, and instead lay on the hot pavement, salt-stiff and staring at the sky?

I watched him sit in the mouth of his slide as I lay on my inner tube, arms crossed over my chest, still shivering. The teenage lifeguard gave my tube a little kick and said, Go! and I did: down into the enclosed blue slide, gaining speed, and the water that filled the bottom of my suit was cold, and the nubs of plastic screws scratched my thighs, but I was happy, racing the coursing water, twirling around tight corners and cresting across the swells, and the echoes of the water and the echoes of my own startled breath gathering around my ears like a halo, and I knew that the slide was helplessly carrying me down to him and I was calm, as though knowing he awaited me at the bottom assured that reckless drop was the last time I’d truly be alone. The top opened up as the slide paled with sunlight, and the blue afternoon yawned above me.

I splashed into the shallow pool where mothers stood knee-deep, lazily awaiting their children’s safe return. I wiped the water from my eyes and nose and lay back in the tube until I saw him splash out of the neighboring slide. He stayed submerged underwater for a while, long enough for me to notice the graying sky just beyond the fence of the park. A storm was coming. When he finally came up to meet me, water slicking away from his body and his eyes opening as if for the first time, not only did I forget the storm, but I also forgot to be sad about the demise of the park, about the cruel and cavalier erasure of our memories.

January, twenty-two months ago. 

What I remember for sure is that by the time I’d moved all my things into Jude’s apartment in North Beach, there had been a handful of cases. In the beginning, they called it NIA, the neuroinflammatory affliction, causing a slow deterioration of memories. And in the beginning, we were not scared. On the news, they talked about it as they had once talked about the avian flu and SARS: casually concerned newscasters, a bulleted list of vague symptoms, and video of malls in Boston and Philadelphia, where some people walked around with paper masks over their mouths. They spoke with Alzheimer’s experts who only really wanted to talk about Alzheimer’s and no one it happened to was anyone we had known or heard of.

At first, we thought it was sort of beautiful: how a man from Needham, Massachusetts, shoveling his drive after Christmas dinner, stuffed his gloved hands in the pockets of his parka and walked away down the lane. How a woman training for a marathon in Seaside, Florida, hadn’t returned from her long run one January evening, and when she was found in the next town over, wide-eyed and running her thirty-seventh mile, and a news reporter shone a light in her face and asked her why, she squinted and said, I couldn’t remember a reason not to run.

In San Francisco we were expert optimists. We felt sure it would not reach us, and the cause or the cure would be found before the quarantines reached our peninsula. Jude was a computer programmer, and spent his weekdays inside an office in front of lines of code and text, so he liked to be outdoors as much as possible on the weekends. On Saturdays, in our windbreakers and sneakers we’d set out on a brisk walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, or go for a light run in the drizzle along Baker Beach before gorging on breakfast tacos in the Mission. We looked across the bay to Alcatraz or through the far gray waves to Angel Island, and we breathed in the sleek fishy air, and thought, Remember this.

We’re lucky.

Jude liked to visit the block of exotic animal shops in the Sunset after brunch. The shopkeeper let him hold a patient iguana each afternoon we visited.

I’ll call him Seymour, Jude said, gently stroking the scales on its head. We are not taking him home, I said.

But then Seymour can see more, Jude said.

Oh, he doesn’t care what he sees, I said, but reached out my hand to touch the iguana.

Seymour blinked in the shop’s dim light and the rainbow scales on his chest swelled with the slow pulse of his breathing. I didn’t like to look at him too long because he looked prehistoric after a while, like a stunted little stegosaur, a creature before time and reason.

Afterward we’d descend into the warm basement, where the aquariums were kept, housing the small iridescent sharks from Malaysia, juice-bright cichlids, bottom-dwellers with whiskers and spikes, schools of tetras.

In the half dark among the fish, we looked in the glass and imagined we were watching smaller versions of ourselves, swimming through new and better lives. The small mansion with bay windows we would buy in Pacific Heights. Our modest yacht where we’d let friends hold their weddings. Summers in Spain and winters in South Africa. One afternoon, Jude grabbed my hand next to the Asian predators’ tank and said, as if it had just occurred to him, Let’s get married.

All right, I said, and laughed.

Swear, he said. He drew me to him and put his mouth so close to my mouth that I could feel us sharing each breath. I said, I swear. I swear I will marry you.

We bought a fish in that store, and a two hundred-dollar tank, a bag of shimmering sand and a single bone-bleached jag of coral. It was a spindly gray and orange tiger fish, and when we touched the surface of the water, it would tense and extend its spiny fins until it had doubled in size.

I hear it’s getting serious back east, the shop owner had said while coaxing the fish into a clear plastic bag. They’re about to suspend air travel in Baltimore for a month, to see if they can contain it.

No one’s going to Baltimore, anyway, I said, and we all laughed at that one.

The shopkeeper lifted the bag, heavy now with the water and the fish. He said, It’s not true what they say, you know, about fish and their memory.

That they have none? I said.

He frowned and twisted the bag shut.

They can remember longer than most people think, he said. I guess they still forget.

But not right away.

He looked over at one massive tank full of sparkling teal water and golden stones, in which two mandarin orange fish with big rolling eyes ceaselessly swam.

Look at them, said the shopkeeper. And look at all they get to rediscover.

We took the fish home. I was the one who found it dead at the bottom of the tank two weeks later, laid out on the pale shard of coral, the color of all that expensive sand.

February, twenty-one months ago. 

One winter night, Jude and I lay in bed in our apartment on top of the European pastry shop and cancelled our plans. I’d ordered Thai food and we left our forks in the half- full takeout boxes, mounds of noodles still wrapped in their tines, as if we’d lost interest mid-bite. Jude opened a bottle of red wine, turned off all the lights, and went around the room turning our cell phones and iPods and computer screens to their brightest settings, until the room was cast in cold blue. We were a little drunk and Jude was beginning to get a little scared.

Look, Jude said. Let’s tell each other all our important memories now, in case this thing gets us.

I laughed. Get us, I repeated. You’re funny.

This isn’t funny. It’s in Texas. There are major cities in Texas. They can’t quarantine Dallas. And we don’t even know what causes it yet.

They don’t really know what causes Alzheimer’s and we seem to live with that.

He got quiet, holding my hips under the covers. Okay, he said. I’ll start. When I was nine, I walked in on my parents having sex, but I didn’t know what was happening. All I knew was that my dad told me it was all right. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong, but that was the first time I knew to associate that kind of thing with shame.

Maybe we should just stay here in bed, I said. Then we’ll never get it. We’ll install a dumb waiter and dolly up pain au chocolat from downstairs.

He said, When I was seventeen, I skipped school with Danny McKinley to try to see how much we could steal from the mall. I stole money from the hat of a homeless man when he fell asleep. I remember his sign said Hungry Hungry Hobos.

I said, I can live off of chocolate and bread. I know I can.

He said, Stop it. Listen. When I was twenty-four, when my mother died, I was the only one in the room. I was holding her hand and I saw her stop breathing, and I didn’t do anything. I didn’t go get my dad or a nurse. I just sat there with her. Even though I knew she was gone.

I said, I’m sorry, but I don’t remember my life before Jude. I kissed him.

We should write this down, Jude said. We should write it so we don’t forget it. We won’t forget it, I said.

How do you know?

What we have are feelings. You don’t forget feelings.

I remember the way you looked when we decided to get married. Like we lived underwater and you were a mermaid and I was a little fish, and the glass around us was the walls of our private world.

Look, I said, holding a cell phone screen up to my mouth. I’m your aquarium.

March, twenty months ago.

We ate dinner in front of the television for the last time that March, when the CDC held a conference in Chicago that was broadcast live on all the major networks. A young researcher took the stage to make the announcement. Her name must have been Dr. something or other, but what I remember is her first name, Melinda. She had blonde hair she kept brushing out of her eyes. I made pork chops for dinner that night, and Jude and I tore them apart with fancy steak knives.

I am pleased to announce we have identified the root cause of NIA, Melinda said.

We have successfully identified in all recorded cases the absence of an enzyme necessary for memory retention production.

Then she did something strange, but also kind of charming. She stifled what sounded like a hiccup, and her eyes got even wider. She clutched the podium with her slender hands.

She’s pretty, I said. Jude shrugged.

We are still on the—we are still trying to—I’m sorry, she sputtered. She stacked and restacked her note cards. The buzz of the audience reached the microphones.

We are trying to find—

And then we saw it, with the camera zoomed in on her face: a flicker across her pupils, like tears receding, a tiny piece of something inside Melinda breaking off and falling away. No one came to the stage to help her, and she said nothing.

Jude quickly turned off the television. Then he stood and walked over to unplug it. When I went to him, crouched near the outlets behind the credenza, he was breathing fast. I suppose I was, too. Until then, we hadn’t seen it happen to someone before our own eyes.

I have an idea, he said. Let’s go.

We got in the car and Jude drove and drove. We didn’t turn on the radio. We drove over the bridge and into the countryside, and finally into a gravel driveway that led to a dark abandoned winery.

He got out of the car and tried one of the glass doors, cursing when he found it locked. He tried another set, and another, and then there were no more doors to try.

I stood by the car, watching him. He had brought a camera and threw it down next to his feet. It’s okay, I said. He walked over to me. We’ll just go somewhere else, I said. I put my cold hand under his coat, under his shirt, unbuckled his belt, and pulled him to the gravel. I turned my head and saw the fields where the vines twisted into the sky in neat rows just beyond the main house, whose small gables also poked upward, church-like. The rain clouds were clearing and the moon was coming out. Jude’s camera lay next to us, where in its lens we were only tiny furious reflections.

Afterwards, I put my hand on Jude’s chest and felt the oceanic beating. I said, How could I ever forget this.

April, nineteen months ago, through October. Six months. 

Things I think I remember:

The enzyme had originated in algae from the Atlantic, a scientist said on the radio while we were driving home from another adventure Jude wanted to photograph. He pulled off the highway in Bodega and walked into the marshes. He bent down and splashed water on his face. Three or four feet away a blue heron stood stark still and watched him dip his whole head into the water, a baptism in never forgetting. I did not photograph it.

Philadelphia got bad some time in the summer. On the news, the Museum of Art was empty, its doors wide open and many of its windows smashed out. Nothing had been stolen. Instead, whole exhibits had been torn down, relics from an age that no one could remember to value, paintings and sculptures askew among trash and broken glass, the marble glittering wet where the rain had come in.

We brought home the iguana, Seymour, and I would watch him as he sunbathed on the window sill. When one day I asked Jude why Seymour never changed colors, he laughed and told me I’d confused iguanas with chameleons. I watched still, convinced I was right.

Jude volunteered at one of the guerilla clinics in Santa Cruz, which worried me, though officials were pretty sure nothing about NIA was airborne. He worked night and day and came home after a week and never talked about it. I never asked.

My mother called from Germany, where she was a nurse. Germans, she said knowingly, were more complacent than Americans about NIA, having had a complicated relationship with memory in the first place.

Maybe we never took the iguana home. Maybe we just continued to go to the shop in the Sunset on the weekends. To maintain some sense of normalcy.

I was a veterinary technician, and was hard at work that summer. We put down as many as ten dogs a day during the busiest times, once-owned pets found aimlessly walking the streets. Who’s to say if they had any memory of their owners. Who’s to say who forgot whom.

The shopkeeper did finally own the store in full. I remember he showed us the deed the day it arrived. But maybe that shopkeeper had family in Baltimore, and then abandoned the shop days later to go save them. To find them roving the streets, wondering where their homes were.

I had a friend named Greyson in Richmond, Virginia, one of the small cities that was struggling as nearly three quarters of their population forgot who they were. She called me one afternoon and started talking very fast about the value of love in wartime. She said it was foolish to dedicate our lives to someone who was sure to die.

Greyson, I said. There’s no war on.

I didn’t realize the call was accidental until she said, Who’s Greyson?

My mother called once more from Germany, as autumn set in. She said she had fallen in love again, with a man named Bruno. He was taking her to Italy and they were going to live there together until this ended. He makes the best arancini I’ll ever taste, she said. Don’t worry, dear. Don’t come here. I’m doing this for myself.

Maybe we shouldn’t be focusing on the enzyme, one scientist said on the news, as we settled in for another winter in San Francisco. The scientist said, Maybe that’s not the lesson.

November, twelve months ago. 

Around Thanksgiving, Jude tried to find his father, who had been in a nursing home in Portland before NIA ever surfaced.

We’re not taking new residents, the nurse said over the phone.

I’m not looking to move there, Jude said. I’m looking for my father. So is everyone else, the nurse said, and hung up.

Thinking maybe he had been transferred, Jude tried all the homes in the Portland area and received the same response everywhere. No new residents, we can’t help you, leave us alone. I told him to stop calling, but he didn’t.

They were like that everywhere. We didn’t blame the hospitals or nursing homes. They did all they could, until they couldn’t. An investigative news report showed people in Durham walking their family members to the doors of a nursing home and being turned away. Sometimes they’d leave them there on the steps of a building. And this was late November, the beginning of winter. Waiting by the closed doors, none of them knowing what or who they were waiting for, none of them knowing if they were or ever had been loved.

December, eleven months ago. 

I should have told her not to come.

Sometime after Thanksgiving, the peninsula had been declared a safe zone, so Jude’s sister, Amelia, rented a car in Chicago to drive to San Francisco. NIA cases were much rarer in the west, they said, because the Pacific Ocean was alive and thriving. And the panic, which was proving more infectious than NIA, still hadn’t reached us.

I should have told her to wait out the riots in Des Moines and the religious fervor in Salt Lake. I should have told her that the new year would calm things down. But Jude insisted that if we were all together, we’d be safe. He had ideas about how to survive this, and strength in numbers was one of them.

If there are three of us, there will be two to remember for the one who forgets, he said. If she can just get to us.

If only one forgets, I muttered.

Jude and I watched footage of lines of abandoned cars on 80 West through Nebraska, where small towns had given in to panic and stopped selling gasoline, and we watched footage of people laying dead in the road, their limbs bent at desperate angles, either run over in confusion or in distress, and in spite of it all, we imagined Amelia’s car inching its way along the map. I watched the camera close in on the bodies before swinging away at the last moment to the newscaster. I couldn’t help it: I thought of dogs gone limp on the table at the vet’s office, the way they didn’t look peaceful exactly, but empty.

The last we heard from Amelia was in Cheyenne, where she called us from the side of the road, waiting to cross through a checkpoint.

It’s beautiful here, she said through the cell phone’s static. How far away are you? Jude asked.

When she didn’t answer his question, I asked, What does it look like?

She paused and then said, Another planet. Like no one ever thought to live here.

She got back in her car for the final leg through Nevada. I don’t know what happened to her. Or maybe I forgot it. I’ve already forgotten what Amelia looked like. I want to say that she, like 

Jude, was beautiful. That Amelia was beautiful.

She was beautiful.

January, ten months ago. 

After the new year, a startup out of Santa Clara launched a chain of memory banks.

For seven thousand dollars you could work with a counselor to record your most prized memories, which were uploaded to a mainframe. For up to four years, your memories were available to be played back to you in a digital projected format, at your home or at one of their stores. The projection used military-developed simulation techniques, programmed in part by Jude for a sum of money that allowed us to live without worry for months. The programming was so advanced that it was not as if you were watching your daughter’s graduation, but rather, re-experiencing it. Thousands of rich men and women uploaded their favorite family memories, and then the rich men uploaded their secret memories in a private account, and middle class men and women wiped out their savings to upload memories they then forgot to access, and then uploaded once more. Those who couldn’t afford it watched online videos of other people’s orphaned memories.

What would you record? I asked Jude. Getting married to you, he said.

And so, in the middle of a rainy Wednesday afternoon, Jude and I went to City Hall and got married. We didn’t invite anyone except the pastry chef downstairs, who came as a witness. I wore jeans and Jude wore his favorite bright yellow rain slicker. We used cheap rings from a tourist shop downtown. Justice of the Peace Cornelia Brown married us. We had the pastry chef record the ceremony. I forget where those discs are.

Afterwards, we rain-hiked the old Spanish and Mexican outposts in the Presidio. The drizzle played on the Redwoods and Eucalyptus above us. I fell in the mud when Jude tried to pick me up to carry me over a threshold, which was actually a porch to a historic landmark house that had long-since closed to the public. It was so wet I slipped right out of his hands. In his arms under one of the redwoods, Jude told me to close my eyes and pretend it was warm. It nearly worked. The canopy of leaves above us had caught all the rain it could, and the slightest breeze would send a cascade of rainwater over us.

We’re in the jungle, Jude said. Borneo.

No, Tahiti, I said, my eyes closed. One of those over-water huts. Okay, Tahiti. We’ve just gotten married and we’re in Tahiti.

We did, I said. We did just get married.

It’s a warm rain. There are sharks in the water below us. The kind in the shop down in the Sunset. Small ones. We look down off the deck of our hut, and we can see clear down fifteen feet or more. There’s no bottom to the ocean in Tahiti.

The water’s so clear, there’s no algae in Tahiti, I said. Never has been, he said.

Am I naked?

Always. Me too.

What about earthquakes, tsunamis?

It’s the safest place on earth, Jude said.

See, I said. See, we just created a memory of something that never existed.

Jude grabbed my thumb and squeezed. He said, I’ll never forget our honeymoon in Tahiti.

February, nine months ago. 

Since what we needed came from the algae, they told us to eat more fish so we did. We panicked and we ate all the fish we could find. The fishing industry appreciated that, had a boom until they, too, collapsed, and fishermen disappeared for days, weeks, adrift and confused in the graying ocean.

But it turned out the doctors and scientists were wrong. There was nothing left in the algae. And they couldn’t synthesize the enzyme. It was one of those rare things, a naturally occurring phenomenon that was humanly irreproducible. It’s actually sort of beautiful that we can’t synthesize it, said one scientist on television, just before he lost his funding.

The ocean’s temperature had risen a fraction of a degree and the enzyme, which had been making its way slowly up the food chain for millions of years, had quietly died away leagues below. Did any water quaver when the last of it dissolved? Did someone stand at the edge of a beach to listen to the waves slap the sand and pause when the rhythm hiccupped?

This is what they should have told us: When you try to form a memory in your brain, it’s like holding up two beads to make a necklace, except there’s no string to thread them.

So you place them in the hollows of your collarbones and you puff your chest out and with a mix of balance and hope, you wait for something magical to marry them together. For a while, it almost sticks. It almost feels like a necklace, an invisible pendant. And then, of course, the beads drop. The thread is the enzyme. The beads are the moments.

May, six months ago. 

Jude succumbed in May. I remember it was May because the cold snap had finally broken and we were walking down the shore at Baker Beach without coats, and Jude said, It’s warm for January, and I said, It’s May, and he looked at me as though I were crazy.

It’s January, he said.

It’s May. I held out my hand, showed him the ring. I said, We’ve been married for five months.

We’ve been married for two weeks, he said, and then he said it again.

The ocean was quiet that day, and there were no seagulls, if you can believe it. There was the epic stretch of the Golden Gate before us, lit and sprung by the high sun. I held my shoes in one hand, and his hand in my other. I thought, he looks the same. He looks like the same person I shared my life with for two years, his eyes still exhausted from worry.

I didn’t let go of his hand. I looked at him as if I could find what went missing, as if I could find him, lost and complete, somewhere within himself. It’s what you do.

November. Now. 

Jude’s insistence on recording our memories didn’t matter, and he forgot everything.

And I was wrong, too: with his memories went all his feelings for me.

There was no order in how the memories were lost. Why could he remember high school graduation and meeting me, but nothing in between? Where was the apartment?

Some days I cried with him, because his losses were mine, too. But some days, I pretended with him. We had to fit our memories together like a child’s puzzle, but then we were off. We would be homeless for hours. We rediscovered the city, places we had known in special ways were now new to us. We even went back to the Presidio in the rain. He looked at me with a wet face and said, Have we been here before? But then just as quickly, he shook his head. No, no. We haven’t.

I didn’t think about the day when I would become altogether foreign to him until the day came. It was an afternoon in October, and we were following Lombard Street up the hill, past the flower beds and the pink and yellow houses and the cars that hugged the turn of the pavement. We’d been here before, of course, many times, scoffed at the tourists who took pictures of it, but it was new again to Jude, a street out of a fairy tale.

I stood there, hands in my pockets, posing for a picture in front of the manicured hedges. I smiled bravely.

Jude peeked out from behind the camera and said, A little to the right.

I moved right, and when he peeked out again, the look on his face was as if he was looking into something too bright.

Jude! I waved my hands, but he was already looking somewhere else.

I wasn’t angry when he handed me the camera and said he hoped the picture came out nice, good luck with my trip. I followed him all the way to the intersection, he didn’t look back once.

Maybe he would have fallen out of love with me anyway. Maybe I would have left him. Maybe, years after we’d parted, we wouldn’t have been able to recall the moments that tethered us together: the sharp pebbles from the winery drive that he’d carefully brushed from my naked back, or the way my breath caught when he dipped his head under the marsh water, and how when he re-emerged I wept out of gratitude that he wasn’t leaving me alone.

But to have it taken away from us against our will, when we never once doubted ourselves—Isn’t it worth something that we never asked, But what’s the point? Isn’t it worth something that we did have a life together? We did live.

That morning before the beach where he first lost his memory, Jude stood at the window in our apartment, blanched in early sunlight. I was wandering around the house, gathering up keys and bottles of water and a hat, the things we would need for our long walk. I stopped when I saw him, though, and I watched him for a while, waiting until he saw me seeing him. The city below was zooming by, but Jude was very still, looking through the glass, straight out past the horizon. The pyramid tip of the TransAmerica tower jutted triumphant over the buildings and beyond that, the sky not yet colored. Blankets of stretched-out fog were burning off in the sun. There was a beautiful day coming, I knew, but Jude seemed to be lost in the transitory moment, in the spilled milk of the nothing sky.

Jude is nearly all gone now, and I am going, too. I’ve already begun to forget—what aquarium basement, whose pastry shop, what, in fact, does an iguana remind me of? One day I’ll reread this and think someone else’s life must have been beautiful. One day we won’t be strangers to each other. We’ll only be new.

“Little Fish” was the fiction winner in the 2011 Contest Issue of phoebe

Aja Gabel’s

debut novel, The Ensemble, is out now from Riverhead Books. Her prose can be found in the The Cut, Buzzfeed, Kenyon Review, BOMB, and elsewhere. She studied writing at Wesleyan University and the University of Virginia, and has a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Aja has been the recipient of awards from Inprint, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She currently lives and writes in Los Angeles. Find her @AjaMaybe.

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