Across the Pond

Nonfiction submission by Tessa Bravata.

Courtney and I flashed our ID’s at the bouncer in front of the brightly colored doors of the casino The Hippodrome. She shot me a sly grin and flashed her card at the man. She had just turned eighteen and wouldn’t be allowed into casinos in the States. We handed over our purses and the bouncer let us inside. Courtney’s eyes grew wide as she took in the whirring and bright colors of the slot machines and gambling tables. The floor was velvet purple and bright orbs hung from the ceiling. I gazed around the room, observing the mechanical pings and shimmering signs when I noticed Courtney staring at me. She tossed her head toward the Black Jack table and I nodded.

“Go ahead and have fun!” I said. “What happens in London stays in London.” I winked at her and watched her line up behind suited men and starry-eyed women.

I walked throughout the casino, making sure to stay near the perimeter of the room. I pulled out my phone and turned on my data. While leaning onto the side of a slot machine and scrolling through Facebook, I noticed a message pop up on the small screen. It was my roommate. She wrote that she had woken up this morning to find out my fish had died. She followed the message with a frowny-face.

I stared at the screen in my fingertips. Closed the message. Looked at the flashing neon “Jackpot” button on the machine in front of me. Opened and reread the message. My throat tightened. The breath inside of my stomach escaped like a compressed balloon. I couldn’t gasp for more air, so I just held onto the machine and tried to remember how to breathe.

As the world was blurring behind the tears that started to fill my eyes, I saw the neon colored sign of the ladies’ restroom. I made a run towards it, waving my hand at Courtney as I passed to let her know where I was going. I made a beeline past the bathroom couch straight for the nearest stall and locked myself inside. I held my stomach and choked out the sobs that were stifled within my chest. I wanted to heave into the toilet, but I couldn’t let myself be empty. Using the bathroom tissue to clean my face, I came out of the stall to look at myself in the mirror. A woman emerged from another stall parallel to mine and said, “It’s okay, dear. It’s just money. You can win it all back.”

All I could do was shake my head at her. It wasn’t money I had lost.

I had bought Finn from Walmart my freshman year of college as an attempt to make my first friend. In the two years that followed, he was featured on many of my Snapchat stories, traveled with me on all my road trips home, and was my favorite friend to come home to after a long day at school. When I woke up in the morning, I’d hover over his glass tank with a pinch full of fish food pellets. He would swim up to the top of the tank when he saw my face to eat his breakfast. I had spent countless hours at the pet store looking for fun treasures to hide in his tank for him. I bought him plants and houses and different colors of pebbles and treats. One day in the fish section of Pet Supermarket, I purchased a small leaf that could suction to the side of the glass so that he could lay in it like a hammock. I suctioned the hammock to the side of the tank and waited eagerly for him to begin to use it. He swam around, looked at me, and nestled back into the plant he already had.

“Look, Finn. I bought you a hammock,” I cooed.

He wiggled around and buried himself deeper into the leaves, as if taunting me. I was only able to lure him into the overpriced fixture twice by wiggling my finger near it. His small, wiggling body cracked me up when I needed a laugh and his sweet face gazing out at me every morning gave me the strength to start my day. Although he was only a small part of my day, he was one of my best friends.

After a year had passed, I began to have dreams of him dying. I dreamt one night that his fish tank broke and I had to scoop him up and place him in a glass of milk. I dreamt another night that the water in his tank made him shrink so small that he disappeared. I dreamt once that I put my hand in the bowl to pet him and accidentally squished him.

Never had I dreamed that he would get sick while I was 4,000 miles away on a class trip in London. I never dreamed that I wouldn’t be there for his watery burial. I never imagined that I would have to type up his eulogy for my best friend to read over the toilet.

After Finn died, I wasn’t sure how to mourn for him in that strange city. The Thames river, dark and foreboding, seemed too eerie to memorialize him. David Bowie’s tribute, which littered the streets of Brixton with piles of cards, wilting flowers, and fraying candles, was not the right place either. Wandering through the streets of London, I couldn’t stop thinking about how far I was from a fish that no one around me even knew of. The streets were unfamiliar, dirty, and didn’t feel like home. Courtney dragged me by my hand into an old book shop, through a thin alley, and past a pub sporting in chalky letters on a blackboard, “Best Fish and Chips around!”

I retched onto the sidewalk.

Courtney yanked me towards the Underground sign and we descended the long escalator ride into the dark pits underneath the bleak London streets. The air was stiff and the hallways narrow.

“Please mind the gap between the train and the platform,” the Tube echoed as we boarded. The aisles were full of Londoners with faces shoved into newspapers and legs crossed. I stood in the only spot I could squeeze into—a small space at the front of the carriage. The passengers wore black suits, black dresses, black coats, black scarves. I looked at the two rows of solemn passengers before me, sitting quietly as if in church pews. I faced the rows of them and began to dab my eyes with my gloved hands. With my eyes closed, I whispered a silent eulogy to Finn. Tears began to fall from my squeezed eyes and I knew the passengers were staring at me. When I looked around the carriage, I saw my grief reflected back at me and realized I was staring into the eyes of the strangers turned mourners.

“This station is Temple,” called the conductor, waking me from my imagined memorial.

The passengers began to jolt from their seats, as if also awakening from a dream, and departed the train. As they made procession past me towards the door, a lean teenager plucked a half empty bag of Maltesers candy from his pocket and gestured it to me.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, before walking onto the platform and disappearing entirely.

An elderly woman passed by on her way out as well. She had two small children gripping onto her coat. She dug deep into the crevices of her purse and pulled out a wad of tissues. She handed them to me and smiled before leading her children off the train.

I dabbed my eyes with the tissues as the new wave of passengers came in wearing purple coats and navy handbags. The crowd reshuffled and the aisles were full of people chatting to their children, slouching men sleeping, and women listening to music in their headphones. I grasped the metallic handrail with one hand and held the tissues in my other bare hand. When we arrived at our stop, I walked quietly with Courtney through the chilled night. We didn’t speak. I held the tissues hard in my palm while we emerged from the stairs of Charing Cross station into the sodden streets above. I held them while we trekked through puddles past midnight pubs and the British Library. I held them while we arrived at the front of the hostel and offered our student ID’s to be let back inside after midnight. The guard shined a light in my reddened eyes and looked me over once. He nodded and let us climb up the metal staircase outside the building and back into the chilled hallways of the hostel. I held the tissues as I climbed back into bed and wrapped the thin sheet around myself. In the morning, I woke to find the tissues had slipped out of my fingertips while I was sleeping and had nestled into the pillow beside me. I picked them up, but couldn’t throw them out. They were a symbol of kindness from a stranger: a gift from an unknowing mourner. I placed them in the front zipper of my luggage along with the rest of the candies.

Back in Florida, it felt strange coming home to an empty spot on my countertop. My best friend had cleaned the tank out and removed the leaf hammock and plants. She wanted to keep them in her room until I was ready to take them back. I told her I wouldn’t be ready to look at them again for a long time, but the empty counter space was something I couldn’t avoid during each trip to my bedroom. I started staying at my boyfriend’s room. He kept me busy by endlessly talking about videogames he was excited about.

“There’s a new one I can’t wait to play,” he said, while walking to the laundry room with me. I was half-listening while looking at the full moon above us. A sliver of a fish-shaped cloud hovered over it. “It’s a game where you can travel through the universe and name planets. Whatever you name the planet stays on the game forever for other people to see.”

I flicked my eyes from the moon to his face, trying to understand the seriousness of his tone.

“We’re going to find a nice planet with water and plants and name it after Finn.”

I looked back at the twinkling stars and nodded silently.

We would name a planet Finn.