The Dream of Bigger Things
A fresh new short story by John Maki
The Dream of Bigger Things
It was their first date in months and they argued about seeing a rom-com or drama, before settling on an Egyptian documentary, the Academy Award winner, a serious affair about the Arab Spring, culturally relevant and, upon viewing, a complete and utter bore.
Later, over dinner, micro-greens a half inch from her mouth, she voiced her disappointment. "Squandered" was the word, implying that any busy person (and she was a very busy person) should know that when seeking fun, one should make fun, not try to mine it from something serious. He concurred and over a shared dessert, a low-fat panna cotta, their mutual non-blaming developed into a maddening silence that lasted through the drive home and until they went to bed.
The entire next day he thought about the date: while sitting in meetings, while staring at his administrative assistant's yellow tooth, while guiding the Volvo's front tire into the car wash conveyor, and while analyzing his own solemn expression in the parlor room mirror — a small feminine mirror with scalloped edges that made his face feel too big.
In the scheme of things, it was just a missed opportunity. It had happened before. So why was he so scared? According to the checklists, their marriage measured up — helpfulness, communication, lovemaking, and differentiation (they scored high on that one) — yet an uneasy feeling lingered. The movie stunk, for sure, but they had always enjoyed intellectual debate and were revered by their friends for being cup-half-full people. Was she unhappy, unresponsive, or scared too?
A few days later he was out for a Saturday morning jog when the idea of a gift came to him, something he could do for her, not to take blame or seek forgiveness (there was nothing to forgive); rather something to propel them in a different direction, somewhere unexpected, nothing romantic or easy, but perhaps meaningful, whatever that meant anymore.
Afterward they would wonder about his inspiration. Was it a rock in his shoe? The wet pavement? His playlist? So hard to know.
She told him she wasn’t scared. She was surviving. He didn’t believe her, but she was resolute, a conditioned response he seemed to accept.
The memory of his acceptance chases Jennifer as she peers into her aquarium and watches her three Puffers aimlessly glide through a blue porcelain castle and disappear behind a large chunk of orange coral. Soon the fish reappear in a new configuration, still placid, maintaining their calm unhurried pace. Sometimes she thinks they swim in a pack (school doesn't seem like the right word), but she isn't sure. Is it a distance or proximity thing? What is their real relationship to each other?
It is a weekend morning and the aquarium reflects her un-made-up face. Light smudgy fingerprints from last night are evidence that, even if they tried, she and Leonard, her husband, can't stop admiring their new pets.
The twenty-gallon aquarium rests on a metal stand in the dining room, a seldom-used area of the house. It has been a week since she arrived home early Saturday evening, tired from her investment seminar, to find Leonard in the kitchen wearing a dress shirt and standing guard oven a bottle of chilled champagne. She had joked that he couldn't be pregnant, that was her territory, and gone upstairs to change. When she came down wearing sweats, Leonard popped the cork and led her into the darkened dining room.
"For you," he said, indicating a luminous aquarium, a narrow, sleek container of sharply lit colors and textures, an exotic stage, contained and predictable, but thrilling too. It was an expensive gesture, which irritated her, because they always discussed costly purchases in advance.
"Fascinating," she said, "But why? We don't need this. I don't have time for this."
"Precisely," he said. "Look closer.”
She moved closer. The tank appeared devoid of life until the Puffers, each the size of her thumb, floated into view and hovered inches from her face, their small dorsal fins flickering like hummingbird wings. She wasn't familiar with fish, just Koi and Siamese Fighting fish at the Chinese restaurant. The Puffers were different. They had round sentient expressions and their motions were still, calm, and controlled.
"My god, they're cute,” she said. “They’re like puppies. I love them. And those tiny little mouths. They look like cartoons."
"Watch this," said Leonard and dropped some black objects the size of buckshot into the tank.
What happened next was like a scene from Wild Kingdom. The fish momentarily froze, their instincts engaged. The objects slowly descended. Then, as if sucking air, the Puffers tripled in size and began frantically swarming, attacking and gnashing the objects, breaking everything into black matter, and gulping every last spec until nothing was left, after which they shrunk back to normal size and resumed their meandering.
Jennifer felt horrified, slightly sick to her stomach, but fascinated too. What had just happened?
"Snails," said Leonard. "They love snails, big and small. You should name them. They’re for you.”
She ran the tape back in her head. Her husband of fifteen years, a predictable, serious man, not prone to outbursts or extravagance, had given her three exotic fish, care and feeding required, perhaps knowing that she was at her practical limit for everything, maybe even close to a complete emotional meltdown. She reconsidered the last part. Maybe it wasn't a meltdown. Maybe it was emotional oscillation, as if her subconscious was trying to reconcile her striving and her wanting and her fear into a singular response, an uncomfortable, continuous catching and releasing.
Leonard sat next to her and waited. His question felt like an order, but something she wanted to do too. Trios of words raced through her head. Eeenie Meenie Miney. Robert Louis Stevenson. Larry, Moe, and Curly. The situation was absurd. She started giggling and placed the back of her hand on her mouth, trying to stop.
"What is it?" asked Leonard, worried.
"It's all I can think of," said Jennifer, laughing. "Huey, Dewey, and Louie." The Puffers swam toward her, responding to their names.
“They love you,” said Leonard, stroking her hair.
“Do they eat anything else? Or do we have to feed them snail?" asked Jennifer.
Leonard tipped open the top of the aquarium and floated some light brown flakes onto the water. The Puffers rose and sniffed them. "It’s regular fish food,” he said. “But they dream of bigger things."
Since a week ago, besides their regular obligations, Jennifer and Leonard have done little else while home except watch and take care of their mysterious new friends. Dishes and phone messages are piling up. Laundry is haphazardly stacked around their bedroom.
"Here, Louie," says Jennifer opening the aquarium and gently resting her fingertip on the water’s surface. A Puffer races up and touches its mouth to her flesh, testing for snail. The teeny kisses tickle her. She loves her fish.
The Puffers regroup and stare. Jennifer senses Leonard coming down the stairs and waits for him to join her. The Puffers float with indifference.
She had felt scared, but couldn’t put it to words. Leonard was correct.
Leonard woke up early. Dawn was breaking and he could barely make out Jennifer's back in the faint morning light. She felt warm. These were some of his favorite moments, alone with her.
If he listened very carefully, he could hear the low hum of their four aquariums, which, if not an obsession, housed their happiest and funniest memories and burdens. Huey, Dewey, and Louie had passed on long ago, but not before Jennifer preserved their faces in a huge photograph that hung over the bed.
Before they married, Leonard and Jennifer decided to remain childless; they were compelled in different directions. Over the years they grappled with emotional transference and regret and aging, all the things you can read about in magazines and books, but not quite grasp, oceans of unconscious feeling, rising and falling, present but often unresolved.
Yet they carried on.
Leonard kissed his wife's neck and she murmured. He remembered the gift. He had stopped to rest on his jog, out of breath. He saw tiny movements in the pet store window and went over for a look. The display aquarium was depressingly bland, a collection of algae-covered cells underlain with gray gravel. An old filter sputtered in the corner. The Puffers were jammed together. They stared at him like scared refugees.
"We can do better than that," he thought. "We can do better.
John Maki lives in Seattle, Washington, where he studies short story writing at the Richard Hugo House. "The Dream of Bigger Things" is his first published piece. John holds a BA in English and Theater from Lewis and Clark College and a Technical Writing certificate from the University of Washington. He lives with his wife Kathleen and enjoys cooking, art, theater (especially musicals), lively conversation, music, and friends. He dreams of being a pianist. Many thanks to Anca Szilagyi for her instruction and support.