The Mediterranean in a Condo
Salma Ragheb, Guest Writer
“Why is there only one fish?” I asked him.
In his new place, I saw he had a huge aquarium. Where there should be a window from floor to ceiling, he had an aquarium, with one goldfish inside. What’s the word for an aquarium that has only one fish? Is it an aquarium or is it an artwork? I wondered if he was doing something similar to Marco Evaristti’s Helena with the fish and the huge tank: some sort of sadistic gesture.
For my MFA thesis, I designed a pavilion to display Helena. When we met, we had been sitting beside each other, waiting for our microbiology professor to begin, and he asked me about the rolled blueprints in my bag. We found out we were both taking this microbiology course out of interest. He was doing his MSc on the sociology of electrons and quantum…something that goes over my head. He went on to complete a Ph.D. in astroparticle physics, and he looked the part, but the long necklace he wore clashed with his character.
He didn’t respond and pressed his body to the screen of the aquarium, and the fish pecked at the screen in such a way that if there were no screen, it would be pecking at his solar plexus.
“Move over,” I pushed him.
I went to press myself to the glass the same way, and I could feel him hovering behind me waiting to see if it would come to me the same way it did to him, like two magnets separated by a paper or like he’s Pyramus and the fish Thisbe. But Thisbe didn’t come.
He explained, “She’s attracted to my necklace.”
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“She doesn’t have one.”
“I have one for her.”
We were both looking at the aquarium.
“Why is there only one fish?”
He looked at me but said nothing.
“Fine, why this huge tank?”
“My mom bought me this apartment after my dad died. She said it’s the closest thing to the Mediterranean I can have here.”
I took off my glasses, and as the fish drew closer to us from the inner depth of the aquarium, I saw an orange dot widening in diameter, and I imagined Pollock with his brush, loaded with orange, but suddenly paralyzed before he could record his choreography with the trickle of paint. And in his complete paralysis, his brush peed the orange in one spot, widening it.
During his family dinners, I ask his family about his necklace and get very amusing answers, although I’m not sure any of them are quite right.
His seven-year-old niece said the brown beads are all the planets strung on a necklace to hang around his neck. She said the thread they hang onto is God’s spit—fine, condensed, and exact—channeled into exactly the purpose he bid them be: the thread that holds the planets for her uncle’s neck.
She goes to church every Sunday.
“But why are they all brown?” I asked her.
She thought for a moment, finger pressed into her flesh, dimpling her full cheek, malleable as a dumpling. She took a bite of her chocolate truffle.
“Because all the planets are just brown rock inside anyway. His necklace is not about the fanciness of the planets,” she said while her head floated in space like it was too heavy for her body. I thought about the confidence with which she presented her ideas and how this confidence was tangential to whether what she was saying is true or not.
“Are there this many planets anyway?” I asked her as she wiped her hand on the beautiful chartreuse couch armrest.
I pretended not to see that. It’s not my couch.
She said, “sure,” and stayed silent while she looked at the chocolate truffle she had so close to her face in her small hands. I thought this must be the end of this dialogue.
But then she said, “There are as many planets as you want there to be.”
“Then why doesn’t his necklace go on forever?” I asked her.
“He doesn’t want to trip over his planets, of course.” Then she giggled while looking at me because I was obviously being ridiculous.
I hugged her and told her she had an awesome imagination, and she hugged me back, but I could feel her wiping her chocolate-stained hands on my bare arm. Then—because she’s considerate—she moved her hand up so she wiped it on the sleeve of my t-shirt instead.
His thirteen-year-old cousin who is obsessed with volcanoes said they were pyroclastics from Mount Saint Helens when it exploded in 1980.
“After ladles of lava had spilled over, the instability of the region carried them and scared them running, and while they ran, they lost crumbs of themselves,” she said, widening her eyes as she spoke.
“And as they migrated, they left warmer plates and went towards cooler regions, and the difference in temperatures allowed them to harden and curdle. As they ran further, they lost more matter and hardened into little rocks, which he then acquired from somewhere.”
She has a subscription to Natural Geographic.
“Why are they perfect spheres?” I asked her, two fists under my chin over the kitchen counter as she stood across from me.
She tilted her head, not thinking of an answer; she already knew what to say. But she thought of how to explain it to me, tilting her head left and right like pool water was in her ears.
She stopped tilting and finally said, “Think of the ground they ran as Michelangelo’s hands, making tiny round spheres for a sculpture.”
I smiled at her and said, “Michelangelo used tools.”
I had thought she was too mature. I thought maybe she had skipped the age in which middle schoolers are spawns of Satan. But when I said that, she rolled her eyes at me and stomped away, slamming the door.
I talked to his twin brother and he said, They’re the rocks used to recreate a laboratory prototype of the Big Bang. And all of these beads are rocks used pre-Big Bang, representative of a moment before our universe began, a moment before time started. Did I know that time and space make up the same fabric, and that special relativity tells us that time travel is possible? If we send a twin to outer space, and one stays on Earth, the one in outer space will age slower because time dilates to accommodate the limitation of the greatest speed being the speed of light and—
“Ben, we’re getting off topic.”
He quipped his head back as if I had hit him. “I’m telling you time travel is real, and you want to know about a fucking necklace instead?”
I thought about it. “Yes.”
“I’m actually serious, time travel is real,” he said.
I put my hand on his shoulder, “I believe you.”
“Do you want me to lend you the book?”
I started walking away.
I talked to his mother. On the backyard porch, she sat on a rocking chair that she seems to have taken right out of Courage the Cowardly Dog. I sat on another one by her side, and then I asked her about his necklace.
She looked ahead and sucked in a breath. “They were in Istanbul. I think Gideon told me the story when they came back from their trip and I wrote it in my journal, let me read it to you. Stay here.”
She came back with a leatherbound journal in her hand, like an accordion, the thin door of the spine attached to one end and dangling from the other like an open door. I wanted to read it myself.
She told me, “When I write things in my journal, I don’t write people’s names in case my journal gets stolen or lost.”
Then she started from her journal:
My son sat on a bench and thought the brown cobblestones looked like chestnuts pressed onto the ground next to each other, their curved sides up like they were praying as he had seen people pray in Hagia Sophia, their foreheads and noses to the ground.
My husband came back with a long white thread wrapped around three fingers of one hand and in the other hand, a small pink chiffon bag that contained beads in the belly of the bag pinched at the top. My son jumped from the bench, his feet crushing the chestnuts and prayers beneath him.
“Whenever you do something good, put one of those beads in the thread. Whenever you do something bad, throw one bead away into the Mediterranean for the fish.”
“They look like fish pellets. Will the fish eat them?” He looked up at his dad and squinted because his dad had the sun behind him like a halo in a painting.
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t I just make an oath to you not to do anything wrong on purpose?”
“Because oaths lose momentum; they’re only honored for so long before people decide they are no longer important.”
The boy hoped his father made it up and that the beads wouldn’t harm the fish. In fact, he hoped they were fish food pellets that his father made into beads just to discipline him to understand the extent of hurting others. But he also didn’t want that, because it would mean that his father was not giving him the real thing.
And so the boy was stuck in a tension between wanting it to be true—because that meant his father trusts the virtue in him enough to give him such a task, loaded with the possibility of a dangerous outcome—and wanting it to be a lie—because the poor Mediterranean fish didn’t deserve to bear the weight of his immoralities.
“I want more room to mess up,” the boy mumbled, embarrassed to confess.
“More room than the Mediterranean?”
His mom finished, and smacked her lips by way of punctuation, with the satisfaction of an author hosting a book reading. I had been too embarrassed to ask if it was a real story, but she seemed too proud not to have made it up. What are the chances that Gideon remembered it was a small pink chiffon bag when he told her the story?
There were fiction writers that denied their stories were real for any embarrassment of association. And then there was Adam’s mom.
Seventeen years later, I was at a gallery event for the book written by microbiologist Heather Joanne. During the panel, she talked about how she used to sneak back and collect animal droppings because the zoo attendants got tired of her coming back for more. These samples were priceless to her because she could study the gut microbiota of mammals: which ones are parasites, which ones maintain a symbiotic relationship with us and help us in digestion.
Then she says (and this was not in the book) that a while back, when she was younger, she dated this guy whom she was crazy about, and he had this huge tank in his house.
“I had been so in love with him that I had wanted to give him something so valuable to me.” The audience laughed as if they had anticipated where this story was going.
She laughs, charismatic, “So I took tiny samples from the matter I was collecting, and I made them into beads, cured them with varnish. Every time I discovered a new cluster of microbiota in a sample—and I’m lucky to say the rate of discovery here was more rapid than in other fields because few people wanted to go collect fecal matter…” She said, sheepishly, and started laughing.
“I would go and add the cured bead made from a fraction of this sample. I felt like a curator.”
As I watched her, everything around me grew silent. I couldn’t understand how affection could crystallize something so simultaneously thoughtful and disgusting. Still, it was an evolutionarily civilized way of claiming him: marking her territory, just as animals do in the wild when they shit on everything that’s theirs. This gesture was similar, but it was more contained, more structured, stratified in a chronology, there was the human touch of classification, and most importantly, the beads were varnished. What says human civilization more than varnish?
She continued, “We broke up a long time ago, but he only returned it to me five years ago, all damaged and chewed up with salt or something. I revarnished it, and now it’s the famous Electrons of Microbiome.” She smiled in embarrassment as she said this, and everyone applauded. Heather Joanne had become more famous as an artist than as a microbiologist; she hadn’t meant it, of course, and this upset me. How come, with all her discoveries in microbiology, she got famous for an effort induced by him?
What really mattered to me was that I got to see and touch Electrons of Microbiome before it became saddled with the artistic, institutional load of being a “piece.” I got to see the beginning of this evolution from necklace to piece, from being the topic of conversation to being the subject of discourse.
But when I think about the way we’d talked about the necklace, as a catalyst of storytelling and a point around which each of his relatives proved their creativity or found space to pitch their interest, I recognized that we’d always talked about it as if we had understood its significance before it truly acquired it. His friends and family felt at liberty to articulate what they had thought the necklace meant, without the scrutinous pressure of sounding intelligent while collapsing the conceptual basis of an artwork. Now I travel with this piece, from exhibition to exhibition, and I read blogs about it, and I feel that its capacity to provoke is tarnished, because now, whatever is said about it, is pretentious before it is creative.
When the convention is over, I go to the gallery and walk towards a rectangular box with a placard on the side. It reads “Electrons of Microbiome, 1989, Heather Joanne.” I look into the box, and there is a necklace made of small beads with varying degrees of brown. And then, next to each bead on the flat cushion surface, in the tiny cursive handwritten font—like those in old colonizer treaties with the blue ink all oxidized and the strokes fattened with the diet of time—is the species and genus each sample was extracted from, and the name of this microcluster.
As I look at it, I remember him—the arrogant theoretical physicist—who was so wrong about biology being the most degrading science. If he were here, I would say to him: look at this beautiful celestial orbit of shit.