Every year, a ritual --
kids all in the backseat
windows down, no AC
just to enjoy the shock of cold air
that enters lungs like water.
The 5 PM sky though darkening is still clear
and I am about to implode with impatience.
We are going to the fair and I am nine-years old
and quarters are jingling importantly in my pocket.
Once at the fair ground, we start to run
before our parents have even unbuckled
themselves out of the car.
We run, holding hands,
filling up lungs with air cold as water
as the colored lights come into view.
The smell of cotton candy candied apples elephant ears
assaults our noses.
Happiness like a puppy dogging our heels
every which way we turn.
After a turn on the Ferris wheel
(you got sick and Mom had to clean your shirt),
we make our way through the crowd.
Our sticky hands excusing-me as we pass
till finally we are at the goldfish stand
where itty bitty bowls of water await
the impact of our pitched quarters.
Four quarters equals two throws,
and you get the first since you're the littlest.
We'd never been lucky before --
all our quarters would hit air
and the fish would remain swimming in their bowls
never to be taken home,
but today is your day.
I hoist you up by your arms and you throw -
a perfect hit, not once but twice!
A ziplock bag is handed down and you accept it
solemnly, your eyes locked on the
belly-fat translucent fish swimming in a plastic bag.
Four quarters, two fish later
we make our way
to the parking lot
each of our hands full: one with leftover
pink-and-blue cotton candy, the other
with the goldfish bag.
At home, we dump the fish ceremoniously
into a bowl and watch them as they explore
their new territory.
Do fish blink, you ask, with the curiosity of five-year olds
Don't be an idiot, I say, of course they do.
To bed, to bed, you rubbing your eyes, sleepy-content
but mine are wide open,
impatient for the morning to come
so I could show the fish off to my friends next door.
When morning comes, I find you still asleep in bed.
Malicious thoughts like devils nipping at my heels.
He'll never know, I think, and
it'll just take a second anyway.
I tiptoe out with both fish swishing
in the mini typhoon that has formed during my thievery.
And I become the center of attention,
Or at least, my fish do,
as my friends ooh and ahh over the goldfish.
Can I hold one, a boy asks and I hesitate, but he has
already grasped your belly-fat fish in his grubby hand.
Go ahead, I say, and soon both fish are filling lungs
with air that gills mistranslate into water.
Back again and phew! You're still asleep.
plunk! Back into the bowl the fishies go,
only they are not swimming as before
and by sundown they are floating.
I cannot face your mournful eyes that watch the fish
unblinking, not comprehending.
Years later, traces of accusation would still swim there.
I long to go back to the night when you asked me
with the curiosity of five-year olds if indeed fish do blink,
so that I could hoist you
laughing, squealing into bed
so that you could go to sleep with happiness,
that old friend,
safe by your side.