This is How Menageries Start: A Tale of Two Goldfish

Here’s the setting: It’s Friday night, and we’re at a big Oktoberfest celebration on the grounds of the Carlisle Army Barracks in Carlisle, Pa. This is a tradition for us (there are lots of carnival rides and games and food trucks and beer here, so of course it’s a tradition. Prost! )

Here’s the scene: My girls run into some good friends of theirs, and there’s a big happy celebration.

They ask to play the game with a goldfish as a prize. Now, David is off with Cian, chaperoning as he rides a kiddie ride, thereby leaving me unchaperoned around tiny little homeless animals (fish count as animals, right?). The girls only have to ask once before I’m forking over the five bucks for the family-sized bucket of ping-pong balls, and by the time David returns with Cian to discover his calm little world upended, Quinlan and her friend have both won a fish. The friend asks her dad if they can keep the fish, and because he’s a responsible adult, he says no. That leaves us, the irresponsible ones, with one adopted fish and one foster fish. I am SUPER excited. David is not. The kids name them Gilbert and Rey.

The reality check: We come home with our little baggie of fish and transfer them and a gallon of old spring water to an empty vase we’d set aside for recycling. The next morning, on Saturday, between a birthday party drop off and packing to go to a friend’s house, I pop into the local pet shop with the idea of picking up a little tank and filter and some food, easy-peasy. I end up spending twenty unplanned minutes talking with one of the workers there about the ethics of goldfish (not kidding. More on that in a sec), and after standing around in the aquarium aisle, stymied and overwhelmed and trying not to cry just a little bit, I leave in defeat, empty-handed save for a little container of food pellets and water conditioner, because apparently goldfish ethics are a thing, and unbeknownst to me we had been thisclose to causing Gilbert and Rey to die a slow miserable death in their teeny tiny chlorinated sphere of liquid toxins (more on that, too). The goldfish, for the rest of the day, remain in their vase.The bottom line:  “Winning” five-dollar goldfish is not exactly the smartest spontaneous move a family can ever make. You know all those stories about idiot parents who buy their kids chicks at Easter only to be SHOCKED when those chicks become actual, real live chickens? We are those idiot parents: Goldfish are weird fragile creatures who are surprisingly high-maintenance on the front end and will suck your wallet dry to the point where when your kids ask you, “Mom? Are you and Dad going to be able to pay for us to go to college?” the answer will be a definitive no. Here are some fun goldfish facts, based on what I learned Sunday from my lengthy, aghast, somewhat whiney conversations with three separate associates in two different stores:

  • Goldfish’ outsides will grow to the size of their containers, then stop. The problem? Their insides KEEP GROWING. Like mutant alien forms that want to try to take over our species but can’t because their insides keep imploding, goldfish kept in too-small containers will die as soon as their spines begin to crumble and insides expand far beyond what their outsides can hold. Super fun for them.
  • One expert recommended a 40-gallon tank for our two tiny fish until we’re able to build an outdoor four-feet-deep pond so they can grow happily, live 30 years and contentedly overwinter in our backyard.
  • They’re dumb as rocks. Also:
  • Their digestive systems are awful and their poo is toxic to other fish, so once you have a goldfish, only goldfish shall you keep.
  • Apparently we’re now installing a goldfish pond in our backyard.

So what we have now: Two new pets in the family. Gilbert (so named by our girls’ friend Lily, who may or may not be happy that he’s now living not in her nice house but in the suburban equivalent of Sea World) and Rey, won by Quinlan, who’s his much tinier companion and definitely showing the signs of a tough guppy life up until now. Gilbert is a show-off who likes to strut around the tank (I’m concerned that it’s a mating call, and we don’t need any Gilbert, Jrs around here). Rey’s got a beat-up dorsal and rear fin, and her right one is so busted she can’t use it at all (think Nemo, but without the IQ). But she’s hanging in there, and I have a soft spot for her and her tiny damaged fins.As for that easy-peasy little tank I set out to buy? Let’s just say it’s not the cute kitchen countertop one I’d imagined. Because my bleeding heart extends to tiny potentially imploding goldfish, we are now in possession of this: a gigantic tank that dominates our entire family room like an energy-sucking, murmuring monster that will slowly drive us insane and/or to the poverty line, whichever comes first. But we refuse to have any skeleton-crushed imploding vertebrates on our watch, so there you go. We still haven’t painted our kitchen cabinets or replaced the microwave that went up in that little fire we had months ago, but never mind that. We got FISH!

The moral of the story: Our five-dollar goldfish ended up costing us $275, and that’s only because I hustled a 25-percent discount on the tank. This may or may not be the first time David is learning of this, so that should be fun. The tank is enormous, fish food stinks, and I’m terrified of waking in the middle of the night to hear the tank crashing through the bookcase that holds it and spilling thirty gallons of poopy fish water and tiny fishy insides all over our first floor carpet.

But do you want to know a secret? We kind of love those little tiny fish. David walked by the aquarium yesterday and I swear he cooed. (“I did not coo,” he’ll insist, but I swear he did.)

“Can I tell you a secret?” he asked the kids afterward. He was grinning. “I always wanted to keep fish.” Together, our family of five gathered ’round the beast of a tank to watch Gilbert circle Rey in a chest-bumping fish dance I’d like to hope was definitely not a mating call. It was a moment.

Gilbert and Rey are here to stay, you guys. They’re as adorable and cute as they are dumb, and we all get a kick out of trying to keep them unimploded. I think I made the right move after all.

But I’m still not so sure we’ll be attending another Oktoberfest anytime soon.