Fish out of Water

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, August 6, 2006

Already the fish from the fair are dead, so we are at the pet store buying replacements, a yellow guppy and a Dalmatian Molly. The kid working the fish department who has impressed us with his fish knowledge, puts the instantly named "Gups" in one bag of water and "Lauren" (we already have a toy duck named "Molly") in a second. He hands them to my girls. My 10-year-old nephew, Matthew, who is in my charge for the week, thinks we better hurry home and get the fish in the aquarium.

"Home?" I say. "But what about the movie?" The plan was to go see "Cars." It's a rainy summer day, the sort made for spending in pet stores and movie theaters.

"But where will we put the fish?" Matthew says.

Well, I was sort of thinking in my purse, a large tote that can certainly accommodate two very well sealed bags of water.

"We're taking the fish to the movies?" he says. We all laugh at the image, and I get some mileage out of a few "Finding Nemo" jokes, but in the end Matthew is not smiling. "We can't seriously take fish to the movies," he says.

We can't? Is there a rule? A health violation? I scan my brain for any distant memory of anyone ever saying anything about this and come up blank.

"What will we say to the people taking the tickets?" he says.

"I don't think we need to tell them about the fish," I say. "It'll be fine." He sighs, grows silent. He thinks I'm the Crazy Aunt, I can just tell. Fish don't belong in movie theaters. This seems to be his main concern. Life has categories, and these two don't intersect. He's looking at Gups. "Hey, the instructions on the bag say you're supposed to take the fish immediately home," he says. "It says it right here."

Oh, dear. A rule. Now I'm sunk. (And home is 30 minutes away, and the movie starts in 10.) Where Matthew comes from -- my sister Claire's house -- people obey the rules. Hers is a tight ship, whereas mine is, but only by comparison, loose. Claire and I were just talking about this when she dropped Matthew off. "How is it that you just keep getting more relaxed and I keep getting more structured?" Claire said. She was remarking on the messiness of my home, not criticizing it, but rather wondering how she might embrace a life of having kid drawings taped all over the walls, of no designated flip-flops basket by the back door, of a broken hose reel that has not been replaced, and so the hose is snaking in and around the garden which is, however, blooming, thanks to the water religiously applied. "See, I would have to roll the hose up each time," Claire said. "And I don't have time to roll the hose up each time, so mostly I don't bother with the flowers in the first place."

She said she feared that she was missing out on a lot of life, because of all her rules of living, and I was getting a headache, trying to decide which of us was superior. I envy her organization, systems and commitment to order. She has dinner ready every night at 6; has Laundry Day, during which she folds immediately; she manages all of this, and her three kids, while working as a pediatrician. Her life is a grid pattern, whereas mine is . . . swirly. The older we get, the more we seem to polarize, even as we keep reaching across the divide for a touch of each other's ways.

So, how would Matthew survive in the Crazy Aunt's life? One night we didn't have dinner until 9:30 because we were all out playing and having too much fun to come inside. "But . . . it's 9:30! " Matthew was saying. "And we're eating dinner! " He was beaming, tasting life on the wild side. I felt the responsibility keenly. People survive living outside the box, I wanted to show him, as ridiculous as it seemed to be the harbinger of that message. I am hardly an example of any side of wild. I have a job, I pay taxes, I don't take illegal drugs, I exercise on an elliptical machine for 32 minutes per day.

So, the fish. The movie. And now a rule. I ask the kid with the fish knowledge how much time we have for Gups and Lauren with the water provided.

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