Out of Water

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"Goldfish Bowl" by Rebecca Cusworth
“Goldfish Bowl” by Rebecca Cusworth

UB Creative Writing and Publishing Arts MFA student Mia White reflects on the most frightfully surreal season of her young life.

Those shouldn’t be there.

I’m staring down at an urban puddle that contains a school of goldfish, only about 50 percent sure the fish are real. At 10 am it’s already almost 90 degrees and the puddle is evaporating; the tips of the larger fishes’ fins just break its mucky surface.

Fortunately, I’m right outside the decrepit warehouse where I live. It has a cracked foundation and haphazardly placed DIY windows; my parents called it “a dump” when I moved in. The first time I saw our space, it didn’t feel like a dump. It felt like solidified dreams. Vast and dark, with a 40-foot long mural of clouds and mountains along one wall, it seemed so beautifully grungy, so bohemian.

Here, I will be a writer, I thought, listening to the trains thunder past with relish.

I live with six artists and musicians, all of whom seem so much more together in their arts than I am. I’m the only writer, and I feel like a recluse when I stay in my room for hours, trying to write in the cave-like space beneath my loft bed. My housemates scatter their talents across Baltimore and beyond with gallery openings, workshops, shows, and plays. Meanwhile, I’ve never been published and I spend my days battling against apathy and finding fish in puddles.

Fearing that the fish will vanish, I climb the concrete steps two at a time and find a roommate in the kitchen. She’s one of the few people I’ve met who bears resemblance to me. We both have thick brown hair, dark brown eyes, and sharp jaws, but I feel like we couldn’t be more different. She’s a film photographer, very together and very smart. I’m still a little afraid of her.

I explain the fish. She’s silent for a second then grabs a glass bowl and fills it with some day old tap water.

“Bring a spatula,” she says, and I hand her one as we head out the door.

We step into the street at the same time as another girl, also carrying a bowl and a spatula. I don’t think I’ve ever exchanged such a distinctly mutual smile.

“My friend posted on Facebook that she had to go to work and couldn’t rescue them!” she exclaims.

She and I agree to each take half. We try scooping them using the spatulas, but as it turns out they just slide off, like undercooked eggs. Bare hands end up being the most effective means of capture; it’s easy since the fish are sluggish from the heat. I end up with six, although one looks like it won’t make it.

Even though I should be writing, I spend the rest of the day gathering fish supplies. When I drop a bunch of money on an aquarium set, telling the cashier about my reason for buying it, he looks at me and shakes his head.

“I wish you’d found me in a puddle,” he says.

I’ll wait out the weekend, I decide, and pick a few to keep then release the rest in a goldfish pond.

Late that night as I lie in bed contemplating my strange day, I find a small lump in my right breast.

That shouldn’t be there.

I have a rather amazing and also infuriating ability to go to sleep in almost any situation, especially when experiencing stress. Despite or perhaps because of an overwhelming sense of unease, I fall asleep almost immediately.

I make a doctor’s appointment the following morning.

I lose the first fish a few days later, finding it stuck to the intake of the filter, moving slightly in an invisible current. I feel sad, but also unsurprised. Fish are delicate creatures and considering what they’d been through, I knew I was bound to lose one or two. I’m the only attendee of its toilet bowl funeral. When it gets caught in the net, without thinking I smack the net’s handle against the seat to get it loose, then immediately feel guilty. Despite the indignity of that gesture, the fish slips with such grace beneath the water’s surface that I think for a moment I’ve made a mistake.

It’s still alive!

Of course, that isn’t the case.

Three days later, four fish remain and I have my first appointment, my mom in tow because I’m terrified. My OB/GYN is a peppy middle-aged woman who approaches everything with a combination of enthusiasm and ambiguous humor.

“Don’t tell me where it is. I want to see if I can find it!”

Is that a hint of glee?

She searches for the lump and talks to me casually as she does so, in that baffling way most doctors do. Where do I work? What did I study? What do I want to do with that creative writing MFA? My mom interjects here and there, mostly bragging about me in one way or another.

“She’s so brave! She found the lump and dealt with it right away,” Mom says, beaming.

“Yes,” replies the doctor, looking distracted. “Oh! There it is.”

She massages the lump thoughtfully for a minute, writing a few things down.

“It’s almost certainly nothing. It could be a cyst or possibly a scary medical name,” she explains. “I’m going to recommend an ultrasound, but try not to worry. It’s very rare for a woman your age to have breast cancer.”

“Yeah.” It’s all I can think to say.

“Although there was this 23-year-old girl in Pennsylvania recently… They decided it was because she kept her cell phone in her bra! You don’t do that, do you?”

“No, my boobs are too small,” I joke. She continues on as if I’ve said nothing.

“So don’t do that,” she says, looking stern. “I’m telling all my patients – don’t even keep it in your pants pocket! That’s what purses are for.”

She checks the lump one more time.

“It’s at… 10 o’clock. We mark the breast like a clock.”

I laugh.

“I’d say it’s roughly the size of a quarter, wouldn’t you?”

I nod.

Or a small goldfish.

Over the next week the fish wane one by one. They each swim lopsided to a corner, their fins tucking close to their bodies, their liquid breath uneven, and then, always overnight when the tank lies in darkness, they stop moving altogether and are drawn into the flow of the black intake filter. With each death, I lose a little hope in the world, just a sliver, tiny as the golden fish themselves. And yet every time I scoop a fish from the tank and carry it to the bathroom, flipping the net inside out with my fingers, the fish fool me. They glide so perfectly into that water that I always think, for half a second, that they are alive.

I see life as impossible right now, these fish found precisely at my deepest moment of uncertainty. By the time I have the ultrasound, there are only three fish left. The doctor tells me the same thing: that it is almost certainly nothing, that lumps appear often and rarely mean anything. That I am young.

I don’t feel young. I don’t believe in an afterlife, and never really have. I grew up without religion, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in purpose. The fish, I realize, were made for the water and born within it, and so of course they return to it with ease and grace, even in death.

By midweek, there are only two left.

I spend a lot of time alone, and when I do I have the strangest sensation that my destiny is splitting in two. Down one possible path lies life as usual, taken for granted until something goes wrong, years down the line. Down the other waits sickness, uncertainty, and perhaps my own young death. I think about writing, and how much of it I could manage if I had a terminal illness. Would I be paralyzed, or inspired? Maybe it would be the ultimate cure for procrastination. In the future that is free of sickness, I envision myself as a creator, of writing and art and photography and all the things I’ve ever loved. I envision myself as finally without fear, free and determined and using every scrap of time I have.

And then, I think about life. How much life, I wonder, could I fit into a year? Six months? Six weeks?

When I have the biopsy done, I feel oddly relaxed in the dimly lit room as the doctor leans over me and says, “This will sound a little loud, like a staple gun.”

It’s not until afterwards when the anesthetic wears off that I feel afraid, reimagining the thickness of the needle with every bite of pain. That day, I confide in more people than I probably should, five or six friends, because I have a sense of release after each telling. I slip it into the conversation in passing, and try to relay it fast.

“I found a lump last week and so I had a biopsy done, which wasn’t fun, and it’s probably nothing but I’m a little worried.”

I try to downplay my fear when I relay the news, the non-news. I pretend to be a discreet and private person, but in this moment I realize I’m not. I want to tell everyone I meet, even strangers. I want to tell them I am afraid, and that this fear isn’t new (for what else is creativity than a battle against time?), but that it is more real than before.

A few days later I find out that it is indeed nothing, just scary medical name, perfectly normal. When I receive the news, I feel like my world has shrunk, and I realize it is because I have only one destiny now, instead of two. The path that I had seen before, of young death, has disappeared. The other path, though edged with fear and cast with shadows from my recent brush with mortality, holds a future that is thick with creation. Though success, of course, remains to be seen, I will write.

This sharp awareness is only temporary, and soon it feels distant, like something seen rather than experienced. All that remains is a thin sense of urgency, the presence of which pushes me to write this very essay.

Five months later, there is one fish left. It is the smallest and plainest of the six, though still it glows like fire in the light of the tank.


Mia White is an MFA candidate at the University of Baltimore. Both a city person and a country person, she enjoys writing in all genres. This is her first published piece.

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  1. So beautifully written and shaped. Such a clear voice. I admire the skill with which you intertwine the two stories (fish/scary medical term), creating a larger, more profound whole–it speaks to the human condition.

    • Ha–the vagaries of internet identity. Actually, I’m your co-conspirator, Sylvia F-B. Ozma is our black kitty. She’s pretty smart, but alas she can’t read. Again, beautiful work!

    • Hee hee, that amuses me. Cats seem to love to take our place on the internet. I’ve met a few people who use their cats to post! 🙂

  2. This should hardly be tagged as breast cancer simply because the author can’t understand “scary medical names.” If you lack anything significant to say, silence is better than this pretend at an experience.

    • I’m sorry you feel that way, and I am sure it is because you’ve had a much more real experience with cancer than I have. I didn’t choose the tags. If I had, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen “breast cancer”, but rather “medical scare”.

    • Hey Flit: I take responsibility for the breast cancer tag. As a breast cancer survivor, I think what Mia experienced is very real and very much part of the breast cancer experience. Awaiting test results is one of the most excruciating parts of cancer and is similar for all of us, whether the results are negative or positive. I, for one, identified with her angst.

  3. Mia, this is such a wonderful essay. It is now among my favorites. I especially loved the way you describe the appearance of each fish when it went into the toilet and the way that you believed each time that the fish was alive. The writing is so good. Miss you.

    • Thank you Danielle! I am glad you finally got to read some of my work – sorry it took so long. I miss you too. We should get coffee sometime, if you have a minute!

  4. Mia, I don’t believe we know each other but I wanted you to know I love your essay. It’s a moving juxtaposition of you and the fish undergoing trauma and fighting for life. Perhaps, because I too, am a writer and poet , I empathised with your line, “My housemates scatter their talents across Baltimore and beyond with gallery openings, workshops, shows, and plays. Meanwhile, I’ve never been published …” Well, now you are! But nothing changes. Our “talents” are buried in the pages of books and newspapers, or worse on computers! There’s no big visual display! And still, it’s all I want to do. (Like you.) Congratulations on your first pub! It’s a big deal and I’m happy for you. 🙂

    • I’m so glad that you connect with the writing side of the piece. If something I have written strikes a chord with someone, I feel like I’ve done well. And if I provide a little solace to another writer, even better! Thank you. 🙂

  5. This is stunning and lovely, as everyone has said. Tweeting now. Also love seeing our whole little UB cnf community rising up in pride and joy. Finally — so glad that other path fell away. xo from yr old professor.

    • Thank you Marion, for being such a great teacher! Challenge, encouragement and inspiration. 🙂 I love UB, precisely for the support I’ve received today.

  6. Oh, Mia, I knew a long time ago that you would write. You are such a perceptive soul, and have such command of the language. I know this is just the first of MANY published pieces. Congratulations.

  7. I completely understand living those two lives at once, waiting for the results. I was a quantum physics experiment in the ER waiting for the results of a CT scan on my 11-month old daughter, living two equally possible realities until the results were determined. I’m glad your reality, as was mine, turned out to be the best reality possible. I’m sure you are an excellent goldfish mother.

  8. Mia,
    My heart swells with pride – in your gesture to save the fish, in your having survived, learned, and grown from a terrifying experience, and above all in your fearlessness in laying it out there – beautifully! I love you! Mom

    • Mia, you already know how I feel about this, but I just want to add to all the sentiments that are being expressed here. This is so lovely–flawless really. I’m so glad that we met before the program and have gone through all of this together.

    • Thank you mom! 🙂 I wouldn’t be who I am today without you. (And I am glad you were there with me through all the uncertainty).

  9. Mia,
    I loved every word! I was crying and laughing for you and the fish. Great work. I am so proud of you and I always have been. You constantly amaze me. You are my shining star! Love, AD

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