Nellie was my first goldfish.
Not my first fish; I had a lot of fish growing up. And I named them all “Cat,” as part of my oh-so-subtle plan to convince my parents to adopt a kitty. (Took seven years, but it worked. Subtle and steady wins the race.)
Anyway. Our story starts on April 21, 2016. My sophomore year of college.
To raise money for a local philanthropy, a campus club decided to sponsor the “Fishy 500,” a fish race. Participants paid a fee, squirted fish with tiny water guns to spur them to swim through a 10-foot track, then got to walk away with the satisfaction of having helped abused children as well as the subjects of their mild waterboarding.
Which is how I ended up paying $10 for a fish that costs 34 cents at PetSmart.
I named her after Nellie Bly, who pioneered investigative journalism, but is now mostly remembered for her “stunt work,” most famously traveling around the world in 72 days, beating the fictious record set in the book Around the World in 80 Days.
I had no idea how ironic all of this would be.
I’ll be the first to admit – Nellie (the fish) had it rough. For one thing, being a broke college kid, I never wanted to spend the money on a fishbowl. Plus, none ever seemed to be the right size; I wanted something big enough so she didn’t feel confined but small enough that she didn’t feel lost in an endless sea of isolation. (Sorry for the pun, I really tried to avoid it.)
So, I bought a large piece of Tupperware from Dollar Tree, and that was Nellie’s home, except for a few short stints in a Mason jar, pickle jar, and salsa container.
You think that’s rough? Just wait.
Between my sophomore and junior year, I lived in three different states. Ergo, so did Nellie.
That summer, we packed our bags (and Nellie’s Tupperware container) and scampered between Tennessee (where I went to college), Florida (where my family lives), and Alabama (where I interned). As we toodled across state lines, Nellie bobbed along in a pink cup sandwiched between me, singing along to some Broadway soundtrack for x hours, and a passenger seat littered with mostly empty water bottles, my shoes, purse, and who even knows what else. Over the course of many trips, she had a few tumbles but always survived. She was basically the aquatic version of Jason Bourne.
The journalist Nellie Bly once feigned insanity to write an expose about the brutality and neglect of mental institution. I’m sure my Nellie longed for the sanity of an 1887 loony bin.
Anyway, when summer ended, the traveling ground to a halt as I slogged through the fall semester of junior year. Then we hit December. As a single fish parent, this posed a dilemma.
I always flew back to Florida for Christmas break. At the time, I was not well-versed in the TSA policy on fish. After diving into parts of the TSA website that no one who wasn’t planning a low-scale terrorist attack has ever looked before, I concluded that I could probably bring Nellie. But I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to take any chances with my little golden-scaled traveling buddy.
When I flew home, I always parked my car at a family friend’s house in Nashville to avoid spending a small fortune for airport parking. So, rather than run the risk of some dour muscle in a bulletproof vest confiscating Nellie, I asked my friends to keep her.
The mom was very nervous, but I remember promising, “Nothing will ever kill this fish.”
[Phantom of the Opera overture]
That poor woman prayed over Nellie every single day, and on January 2, 2017, when my plane finally landed at the Nashville airport – after a five-hour delay – and I lugged my duffel bag off the suitcase carousel, my car and Nellie were both shiny and sleek and ready to go.
By the end of the night, we would all be in varying degrees of ragged.
My plane took off late because of foul weather in Nashville. As I navigated the roads to Jackson, Tennessee, it was still raining steadily. To make things worse, there are no lights along I-40. But I had a podcasting class the next day, so I zipped through the dark, listening to the Hairspray soundtrack.
About an hour later, I felt the wheel turning itself to the left. Before I could react, my car smashed into the guardrail. Then it bounced off and veered to the right like a tiny metal ball in a pinball machine, slamming into guardrail on the other side.
I screamed. (Honestly, though, I think a part of me was less scared of dying than embarrassed that the last sound I ever heard would be Zac Efron singing “Ladies Choice.” That’s a swan dive onto rock bottom you never get to recover from.)
Anyway, after bashing both sides of the car, I managed to get control and pulled over to the side of the road. Turning on the emergency lights, I yanked open the car door. My bare feet sunk into the mud, rain sopped my clothes. I stood back and tried to assess the damage, but I couldn’t make anything out through the rain. Cold and wet, I crawled back into the car and called the police.
When I hung up, it hit me – where’s Nellie?
Her cup had rolled under the passenger seat.
My car was totaled.
We never found Nellie’s body.
Every time I tell this story people are like, “That’s the funniest and saddest story I ever heard.” And it’s true. And even though it hurt in the moment, looking back, I have to say, I couldn’t imagine Nellie dying any other way.
So, why write about this now, more than a year and a half later?
Grieving is a process, and it took me time to work through it. For the last nineteen months, I’ve wondered if I have the capacity to give a goldfish the care it needs and deserves.
A couple weeks ago, after writing about how Nellie weirdly helped me get my job, I decided it was time to move on. I was ready to open my heart again.
Life happens. Fish die, cars wreck, screws fall out. The world is an imperfect place.
After a week of research and visiting pet stores, I screwed up the courage to buy another goldfish.
Sometimes, you just have to get back on the horse. Or put another fish in the bowl.
Or the cupholder of my car, which is where my new fish ended up the very next Saturday afternoon as I drove from my apartment to my parents’ house, an hour away.
Amazing how, in spite of all our best intentions, we end up making the same mistakes.
Well, hopefully not all of them.
If anyone was wondering, I named my new fish “Nora” after Nora Ephron, who co-wrote and directed my favorite movie, You’ve Got Mail. So, I’m naming my fish after women writers now. Cliché? Maybe. But at least I’m not using them as a mini SPCA commercial.
In memory of Nellie. I hope that Heaven is a full-sized aquarium full of friends, where you can traverse the entire galaxy without the constraints of a Tupperware container.
If you’re reading this and not completely repulsed by my negligent fish ownership, type your email into the “Stick Around” widget on the top right of the screen.