With Fish

by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee

My girlfriend on the sofa, swaddled in blankets. Flossing her teeth while she watches TV.

My girlfriend, drinking coffee and buttering toast, scanning a list of sperm donors, selecting for tall.

My girlfriend, moaning, bent over the bed, my fist inside her where a baby should be.

***
We went to the mall and she wanted a baby. It killed me that I couldn’t give her fragments of my DNA, that sex between us was always just sex.

No. It didn’t kill me at all. I thought it was funny, ordering sperm in the mail. But queers are supposed to feel apologetic about these things, to make up for the fact that sex is pure pleasure.

She had to order our future baby’s father’s genetic material through a doctor. She couldn’t just have it sent to our house. Of course, she could’ve walked into a bar, hit on some guy, and conceived our child in an alley. But no, a doctor had to be involved. They made her get tested for HIV, too.

The waiting room was filled with Christian magazines, embroidered pillows, and gendered toys. “You’re my sister,” she whispered when they called her name, and our relationship slipped behind one of the pillows. Later, she told me that the ceiling was decorated with a mobile of animals, and that the doctor called house pets “little buddies.”

“We’re going to get you a little buddy of your own,” he said, slipping sperm inside her while her sockless feet galloped in stirrups.

“Why didn’t you wear socks?” I asked. I always wore socks to the GYN.

“Were you listening at all? He called my baby ‘little buddy,’ like he knows it’s going to be a boy.”

“You just called it ‘my baby.’”

“This was my idea.”

I’m not your sister, I thought. But it was true; the baby was her idea. I’d never wanted to carry a child, by which I meant inside me or even in arms. Children scared me, with their big bug eyes. Besides, why assume you’d get the kind you wanted? Serial killers had to come from somewhere. What if the child was violent or wouldn’t stop spinning? Worse, what if it was boring, lived an ordinary life?

***
We were eating dinner when the doctor called. She was three months in, swimming in dizziness.

“Hello,” and pause. “I see. With what?”

She hung up the phone and went straight to the bathroom. I could hear the tub, smell lavender bath salts.

That night she spit bubbles while she flicked her feet.

***
It took three days for her to tell me about the phone call: her doctor, calling to confess a mistake. He’d inseminated her with the wrong injection. Wrong needle, wrong species. She was pregnant with fish.

“Oh,” I said; what was the right thing? “You’re beautiful, sweetheart. I’ve always loved guppies.”

She started to cry. “Have you looked at my stomach?” She lifted her blouse, blue billowy cotton. A little bump that glowed and pulsed.

That night and the next I lay awake while she slept, watching her stomach as she tossed in dreams. In the dark of our bedroom her belly lit up, transparent. I could see tiny shapes moving in circles. An aquarium where her roundness should be. Even a castle, green seagrass like glass. A faint sound of gurgling.

At least we knew this of fish: they only grow to the size of their container. But how many was another story. Could be a few catfish, slow and cumbersome. Or dozens of flashing cichlids, forever tiny.

I watched her stomach closely. I counted the shadows she made on the ceiling, tried to pick out tail from fin, until the growing hum of her motor put me to sleep.

***
We weren’t telling yet—how did we tell such a thing?—so her coworkers threw us a shower, besieged us with gender-neutral onesies and receiving blankets, t-shirts that said Hatched By Two Chicks and Love Makes a Family, gift certificates for cleaning services. Her friends had gone back to cloth diapers and homemade baby food, had become punk rock versions of their grandmothers. They carried their babies in complicated wraps and nursed them until they turned five. Their children had shaggy hair and ran naked past the age when it was cute. Their children had elevated vocabularies and no social boundaries. Their children put their unwashed heads in my lap and I had to restrain myself from shoving them off. I looked at my girlfriend and loved her more than ever.

But after the shower, she wondered aloud if she should get rid of the fish, if getting rid of them was even possible.

“No, please,” I said, suddenly desperate. “What seems worst?” She held out her hands, palms up. “I’ll never get to hold them.”

We returned the shower gifts and went back to the doctor, stared at the tank in the waiting room, dull goldfish with bulging eyes. When the nurse called my girlfriend’s name, I stood in the corner refusing to look at the birth announcements that lined the wall. My girlfriend stepped onto the scale, held her arm out for the blood pressure gauge. I didn’t need to lie about being a sister because nobody asked who I was.

The doctor was ready with a check. “Buy a nice aquarium on us,” he said, looking at the ceiling. “How’s your appetite?”

“Terrible,” she said. “I could eat nothing but salt.”

He frowned. “Must be a marine species. They’re harder.” “Harder how?” I stood so he’d have to look at me, but he still addressed his answer to the ceiling.

“More maintenance. Higher mortality rates.”

“Look.” I waved a hand in front of his face. “She wants to hold them.”

“May I suggest,” the doctor said, looking at her, “that you learn how to dive.”

***
My girlfriend in a wetsuit, hanging off a speedboat ladder.

My girlfriend showing me her photos of a wolf eel, an octopus, a nudibranch. Leaning over my computer keyboard, her hair damp and fishy.

My girlfriend in the bathtub, pulling my hand between her legs. When she came, the school inside her swirled into a glittering bait ball. Her stomach puff out, distended. “I’ll be damned,” she whispered, panting. “I finally look pregnant.”

Water reflected silver off her face. Her breathing slowed, and the bait ball unwound. “We will love them,” she said fiercely.

“Sure,” I said. “Don’t we already?”

She looked worried, but I’d spent the last weekend in the back of the pet store, comparing filtration systems and buying bulk substrate.

I already loved them as much as her. Maybe more.

***
The aquarium took up half the room. Big enough to climb inside, which she did the first night, naked except for her mask and tank. Silhouettes crowded at the edge of her stomach, like koi in a pond. I got into the tank with her, held my breath and put my ear against her navel. Could almost feel the tickle of their mouths, feeding.

She pushed me away and motioned for me to get out.

***
Towards the end, she slept in the tank, her belly glowing like a nightlight. I missed her, so I moved my bed beside the place where she floated, and sometimes she moved her hair aside to smile at me, and sometimes she did these sexy dances while I masturbated in bed. The fish were born so quietly neither of us noticed. I woke to find my girlfriend missing and the room dark. I turned on a light and saw the school moving around her as a single entity.

She didn’t wake. The fish startled at the light and rushed back inside her. And like that, they were unborn again.

***
The change in her spread. I knew that in late pregnancy the growing fetus could shift things around, shove aside the stomach, pressure the bladder and lungs. Her fish babies didn’t grow. Instead, more of her insides flashed on, transparent. I could see her organs now, one the shape of a treasure chest, one a skull and crossbones. Her chest glassed over, and there was her heart, bubbling.

I convinced the doctor to make a house call. She was no longer surfacing to eat.

By the time he arrived, I could see all the way through her. He handed me a check and refused to come upstairs.

***
In the tank, seaweed blew like hair. The fish followed each other’s slight-est movements, tracking shapes that looked like a body.

Kelly Magee’s first collection of stories,Body Language (UNT Press)won the Katherine Ann Porter Prize for Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Kenyon Review, Swink, Nashville Review, Diagram, Ninth Letter, Black Warrior Review, Colorado Review, and others. She is an assistant professor of English at Western Washington University. Carol Guess is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose, including Tinderbox Lawn, Darling Endangered, and Doll Studies: Forensics. She teaches creative writing and queer studies at Western Washington University, where she is professor of English.

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