The doctor breezed into the room, waving the results of my EKG test earlier this year. “This is terrible,” she said, shaking her head and jabbing at the spiky graph. “Really, really terrible.”
As it turned out, the doctor was referring to the poor quality of ink in the EKG machine’s printer — not my cardiac rhythms. My heart was working fine.
“It’s probably just anxiety,” she said, flopping into her swivel chair. “Do you have any pets?”
It took me a beat to respond to this apparent non sequitur. “Well, I have a goldfish.”
“You really should get a dog,” she said, slapping me on the knee with my rolled-up EKG results. “They’re good for exercise. And companionship.”
I explained that my apartment complex didn’t allow dogs. “If it’s an emotional support animal, they have to allow it,” she insisted. I practically left with a prescription for a golden retriever.
Back home, my apartment seemed emptier than when I had left it. I imagined a puppy bounding over to greet me, dropping a rope toy at my feet, and leaping up to lick my palms. Would that really settle my heart, which even now was throwing itself wildly against my rib cage?
It didn’t matter. The truth was that I couldn’t afford a dog — something I had been too ashamed to admit to my doctor. Even a rescue was outside my price range.
Sighing, I walked over to the glass bowl glimmering on my coffee table. I looked down into its shallow depths, where Sebastian was circling idly.
The goldfish would have to do.
Sebastian was the latest in a lineage of pet goldfish that stretched back to my childhood. I still remember, at age 4, pressing my nose against a luminous tank in the mall pet store and deliberating for what seemed like hours over which orange clone to bring home. These squirming specimens cost a dime each — an appropriate price, because I typically found them floating belly-up after only a few weeks. I would wave goodbye as my father emptied their bowls into the toilet and flushed, a practice that seems undignified in retrospect.
If these first goldfish (and their burials at sea) were early lessons in mortality, my next goldfish taught me something about endurance. Despite my indifferent caretaking and several suicidal leaps out of its bowl, this one lived in my bedroom for a dozen years. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal the name of this miracle fish, because my go-to security question is “the name of your favorite pet” and you could probably gain access to my bank account within five minutes.
When this long-enduring goldfish finally perished, I gave it a proper backyard funeral and immediately went to the pet store to buy a new one. Since then, I’ve never been fishless for more than a few hours. Even through the countless moves of my peripatetic 20s, when I crisscrossed New England with a mattress strapped to my car roof, I always had a splashing bowl squeezed between my thighs, its jittery occupant beating its fins in the rocking water.
There are many reasons the common goldfish has its hooks in me. I love its scales, orange and pebbly as the peel of a tangerine. I love how its bulging eyes and gaping mouth give it the permanent expression of someone who just walked into their surprise birthday party. I love how it wriggles awake when it sees my looming form in the morning and how eagerly it vacuums up its daily food pellet. On dreary winter days, it flickers like a flame in the corner of the room, and on insomniac nights, when the rest of the world is asleep, it stays up with me, troubling the water.
But could Sebastian — or any goldfish — really serve as an emotional support animal?
Dogs make sense in this role. They’re vocal, warm-blooded and hardwired for loyalty. Goldfish are none of these things. Aside from the faint gurgling they make when blowing bubbles, they maintain a rigid vow of silence. Their cheeks may be pouty and their fins silky, but they are absolutely un-huggable. And even after a dozen years, they feel no special bond with their owner, whom they couldn’t pick out in a lineup.
But I had to try.
After my EKG test, I knelt by the coffee table and gazed into Sebastian’s fishbowl as if it were a crystal ball. Mistaking my proximity for feeding time, he began swimming furious laps. The curved glass of the bowl magnified his passing features like a funhouse mirror. I didn’t feel any calmer. If anything, Sebastian seemed to be the personification of anxiety — an obsessive thought circling the mind on a loop.
Yet over the next few weeks, I continued these fishy therapy sessions. Several times a day, I would crouch and watch Sebastian circumnavigate his one-gallon world. One morning, I even made a digital painting of Sebastian — a portrait for which he refused to sit still.
Whenever I stared at my goldfish, I would hold one hand against my chest to feel if my heartbeat was normalizing. It never did.
Eventually, we figured out a medication was causing my heart’s alarming antics. As soon as my doctor changed the prescription, my heart stopped trying to leap out of its bowl.
Still, I’m glad I spent that quality time with Sebastian, who passed away a few months after my medical comedy of errors. I actually did find him to be a comforting presence. And though he was replaced before the day was out, he will never be forgotten.
Will Dowd is a writer and artist from the Boston area. He is the author of the essay collection “Areas of Fog” and “The Lunar Dispatch,” a newsletter about the moon. He is on Twitter and Instagram @watershipdowd.
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