“Come on, little guy,” said a man to the tiny thing struggling in the palm of his hand. “You need to cooperate.”
The tiny thing in his hand was a puffer fish. It was puffing its little body up and down while the woman attempted to open its mouth with a plastic toothpick.
Both of them , disheveled, in baggy home clothes, hunched over the kitchen countertop.
Latex gloves and the aquarium net were scattered at the “scene” along with Eugenol, a cup of bloodworms and some eye droppers.
They had gotten most of the stuff at Walgreens downstairs. They wandered along the aisles lost like two kids. She checked her phone frequently for the list of things needed for the surgery.
When they came back home they mixed two drops of medicine into a bowl of fish tank water. He fished the puffer out carefully and placed it in the bowl. She brought her cuticle clipper from the bathroom.
“Careful with the face,” exclaimed the guy. The sharp end of the toothpick dabbed into the translucent lip surface. “Chill,” she replied angrily, “How do you expect me to do it?“ “It’s his face!” he snapped back. “He’ll grow a new one,” she snapped, feeling the knot getting formed in her stomach.
They followed the steps of the tutorial she had found on YouTube.
“Puffer’s teeth grow its whole life,” narrated the bearded man in the video. He held a puffer similar to theirs in the palm of his hand.
“They are usually able to control the growth by maintaining a crunchy diet. This can present an issue in the freshwater aquarium.”
“Jesus,” they gasped when she managed to hold the flimsy slippery upper lip in place. Two disproportionally big buck teeth were exposed. They took up all of the space in the mouth like a castle wall.
“If teeth overgrow enough this can cause starvation,” said the man on the screen.
She had called a local pet hospital earlier that day a bit hesitant about her problem. “Hello! Do you conduct fish surgeries?”
“Sorry?” said the woman on the phone.
“My puffer fish needs dental work. I wonder if you can…”
“I believe, we don’t, sweetheart,” said the receptionist. “Let me ask our doctor.”
“Sorry, honey, but we don’t,” she heard back after a while. She was pretty sure that the lady on the phone mistook her for a five-year-old calling while her Mom looked away.
“We’ll have to do it ourselves tonight,” she texted her boyfriend. That was how they ended up here.
“You can use scissors, or any other sharp instrument, to cut the overgrowth,” said the man on video and cut into his puffer’s teeth. His voice remained perfectly calm, as that of a BBC documentary narrator’s.
Feeling brave, she took the cuticle clipper away from her boyfriend. At the last moment, though, her hand flinched. A sliver of the lip hung at the corner of the puffer’s mouth.
After a couple of failed attempts, her hands were shaking. She felt dizzy and demanded to take a break. They let the fish back into the bowl. It was breathing fast and hard.
“Ok, last try,” he said. “It can’t be out any longer.”
This time she snapped a large piece of tooth. The fish opened its mouth wide and gasped for air. “Yay!!” At once it seemed like they could succeed.
“Wait,” he stopped her. “What are you talking about?” She was confused. “I don’t think he made it.”
He dropped the fish back into the bowl. It turned upside down immediately. They lowered their faces to the water. Puffer’s belly was white and sunken. Its sides were stuck to the spine. The spine itself was twisted. A giant unhealthy bulge was sticking out near its tail.
“No, no, no,” she retorted. “It doesn’t look dead. I mean, he looks bad, but he looked like this for weeks. It fainted.” “No,” he shook his head. “It might have fainted,” she insisted. “Let’s put him back in the fish tank. Maybe he’ll wake up.” “His membranes are not moving”. He looked at her, shook. “It’s probably in shock,” she insisted. “Of course, he will wake up!”
Under her pressure he slid the immobile fish back into the tank and placed it in the coral carefully so it wouldn’t have been sucked to the air filter. That’s where they left it for the night. Helpless and stiff, propped up in the coral reef at a weird angle.
She woke up early to go to work. She didn’t turn the lights on and walked into the living room. In the dim morning light the glowing fish tank caught her attention. She walked up to it. The tiny body glistened in the dark coral exactly where they had left it. The other puffer was floundering around, chubbier then ever.
“And he was the lively one,” sighed her boyfriend when they had first noticed that Miguel looked ill.
On her way to work, she thought that it was kind of silly and that even though it was only a fish the loss felt all too real. This world was empty without Miguel.
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XOXO, Marina ❤