Betta

Betta

Illustration by Alexander Enriquez

For an Easter party, HOPS always got pretty insane. It was almost guaranteed that some idiot or other would end up in University Health, but Twill has never heard of anyone being hospitalized for swallowing a betta fish. Later, as he parts the curtains that surround the paper-sheeted hospital bed of Peter Simms (18 years old, 5’11’, probably, at that moment, somewhat lighter than what Twill estimates is typically about 160), Twill learns from a male nurse that Simms has actually been hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, not swallowing a betta fish, though he will need antibiotics for the latter condition, “just in case.” There is an IV sticking out of the blue vein of Simms’ floppy white arm.

Twill, who is not feeling great himself, glances at Simms’ pale, sweaty, post-vomit-glistening face and tries very hard not to hate him. Simms is, after all, just a kid. He doesn’t remember swallowing the betta fish. In fact, he doesn’t remember leaving the DSA house for Jacqueline Marguerite’s apartment. He doesn’t remember telling Jacqueline Marguerite he could swallow her betta fish, and he doesn’t remember Jaqueline Marguerite telling him not to do that, and he doesn’t remember doing it anyway. He doesn’t remember choking on it and he doesn’t remember Jacqueline administering the Heimlich and he doesn’t remember throwing up twelve times on her roommate’s faux shearling rug.

“Did it die?” Simms asks now.

Twill takes a seat on the plastic chair facing Simms’ bed. “Yeah.”

“It died?”

“Yeah. You killed it.”

“How?” There’s a note of hysteria in Simms’ voice. “I didn’t chew it or anything.”

“I don’t know. I guess it died of shock.”

“Fuck — is Jacqueline mad?”

Is Jacqueline mad? Is Jacqueline mad? “Yes.”

Fuck,” Simms repeats. He appears to think for a second. “That sucks because I’m pretty sure we, like, made out.”

Does Twill have the heart to tell Simms that, according to Jacqueline, not only had Simms and Jacqueline not made out, but that Simms had said “some pretty offensive things” right before swallowing the betta fish? Does Simms need to know, as he lies like an under-watered turnip root on the raised hospital bed, that he told Jacqueline Marguerite, president of AXO and heiress to a sports drink fortune, that he thought her legs were “actually kind of hot” even though “they had that lumpy shit”? The chances of Peter Simms ever making out with Jacqueline Marguerite, or any AXO girl for that matter, are slim to none. But is it really necessary to give him this information now?

“So am I in trouble?” asks Simms.

Twill clears his throat. His head is pounding. “Do you think your Dean knows?”

“Fuck my Dean, man. I mean with D Sig.”

“I don’t know,” says Twill.

For the first time, Simms looks scared. “Seriously? Just for getting drunk?”

“You said some stuff to Jacqueline.”

Simms blinks. “Oh, shit. Like rape-y stuff?”

If this were the old days, Twill thinks, he could slap Simms in the face. Ross Planchett — treasurer when Twill was pledging and now a consultant at McKinsey making nearly 80k a year — punched Twill in the stomach two years back. Twill didn’t really think about it too much at the time, even though Ross was one of those ex-football guys and the punch was no joke. They’d been doing that thing where they make you drink a quart of milk and run suicides — and Twill was taking a really long time to throw up, and Ross Planchett was done waiting. But they couldn’t do that anymore.

“I swear I would never say anything like that,” Simms is saying. “I take that really fucking seriously.”

“It wasn’t that,” says Twill, but he finds he doesn’t really want to enlighten Simms further.

“I want to make it up to her,” says Simms. “I feel really bad. Did I, like, destroy her place?”

“It was pretty much concentrated on one rug.”

“I’ll pay for the rug. No question.” Simms says this very proudly, as if there was ever any possibility that he wouldn’t Venmo Jacqueline Marguerite the $78 he owed her roommate for her overpriced Urban Outfitters rug. Or the $250 for the incurred cost of the betta fish, fish food, tank, tiny castle, and special fish light. Just get a new one, Twill had wanted to say to Jacqueline when she’d texted him at five in the morning. (The actual text had read: hi graham this is jac i got ur number from megan. I know ur the head of development for d sig and obviously u can’t control everything ur pledges do but i’m really fucking pissed and i think u should know. This kid peter simms was so drunk at hops last night and i didn’t think he was being safe and all his friends had left so i was like whatever i don’t want him to walk back to old campus by himself he can crash at mine. But he fucking ate my betta fish and threw up 12 times (that’s not an exaggeration i counted). In addition he said some really offensive things to me that i will be addressing in a more formal email to ur president. i put him in an uber to uhealth i trust u will check in with him and make sure appropriate action has been taken. Also yeah i know i already said this but im really really mad so expect that to play out in certain ways in terms of d sig and axo’s relationship). Upon receiving this text, Twill, who had been in the middle of rolling a joint in a desperate attempt to fall asleep, had sprinted to University Health from the D Sig house to find out whether or not Simms was still alive and, if he was, how long he should be kept that way.

“This obviously doesn’t look great on us,” says Twill, sitting down on the shiny green stool next to Simms’ bed. “We have to have some consequences.”

“Are you gonna kick me out?”

It’s the wrong thing to ask. Simms looks so pathetic. He looks the way Twill wants him to think Twill thinks of him. Scared of being alone. Scared of having to call his parents and say what happened. Scared of not getting the iconic black-and-green D Sig sweatshirt.

“That’s not for me to say right now,” says Twill.

There is a silence in which the unspoken floats grimly between them: in some ways, or in perhaps every way, this is Twill’s fault. It was Twill who taught Simms how to swallow a live fish. Two weeks ago, the two of them were in the basement of the D Sig house, Simms drunk off his ass and Twill not too far behind him, the pledges lined up like soldiers with their hands behind their backs, fidgeting, and Twill was feeling like being an asshole because Simms was wearing this stupid tie. The older guys were supposed to walk up and down the line, inspecting, and occasionally stop and say mean shit, but Twill went right for Simms, took his tie in his hand and twisted it hard.

“What the fuck is this?” he asked.

“It’s a tie,” Simms said.

Twill waited.

“Oh,” Simms said. “It’s my family crest.”

Twill could feel the raised fabric under this thumb, the place where silk gave way to stitching. In truth, he had been looking at Simms’s tie the entire night. The crest was trisected — a lion rampant, a clover, a cross.

“We’ll start with Peter,” Twill said to the room. Simms stepped forward, eager. He held out his hand as if expecting a gift.

Twill pointed to the pocket of Simms’ blazer. “Fish.”

Simms had been keeping the fish in a Ziploc bag. In the basement, which was primarily lit by strings of faulty Christmas lights, the water looked like blood and the fish looked unconscious. Twill asked the fish’s name.

“Um.” Simms’s lips twitched. He was holding back a laugh. Twill felt a rush of anger so sudden and so powerful that he had to dig his fingernails into his palm. “Fishy.”

“Fishy?” Twill repeated.

“Yeah.”

“Did you do what you were supposed to? Feed him?”

“Yeah, and I kept him by my bed.”

Twill nodded. “Swallow him.”

Simms’s face contorted. “What?”

“I think you heard me.”

For a single moment, Twill thought Simms wouldn’t do it. He looked like he wasn’t going to do it. Twill wanted him not to do it. This is a test, he tried to tell Twill with drunken telekinesis. But not in the way you think it is.

Simms yanked open the Ziploc and seized Fishy by his tail. He flapped.

“Go fast,” Twill said, giving up. “Hold your nose. Like it’s a pill.”

And now they’re here on the screened-in bed, two people who’ve swallowed a collective three goldfishes in their collective thirty-eight years. And Simms wants to know if he’s going to be “kicked out” and Twill is almost certain he already knows the answer.

“Get some sleep,” Twill says. “That’ll help.”


What Twill realizes, as he pushes through the glass double doors of the building, is that he is actually sick. Like maybe more than hungover. Winter is just melting into spring and Twill is still in the clothes he wore last night. The thin cotton of his t-shirt flaps uselessly in the wind, but he’s sweating. He hunches his shoulders against the cold and closes his eyes. Dizzy. He might pass out. He might not be able to think about Peter Simms right now. He might not be able to think about anything else. Maybe he doesn’t need to make a decision, really. Maybe there’s a gray area.

It was just a fish. Not even an expensive one.

That night two years back, it didn’t really take only one punch to get Twill to throw up. It kind of took three. And when he did finally, it was all over himself. His shirt was soaked in this chunky buttery shit with these crazy blood spots in it that made Twill think he was maybe going to die. And then — and he was really out of it at this point, it wasn’t like the only thing he’d been drinking was milk — that guy Ross Planchett picked him up and carried him in a way Twill hadn’t been carried since he was in elementary school. Ross took him away from everybody else and into the bathroom upstairs where the knobs on the faucet had come off and took Twill’s shirt off and sat him down sideways on the toilet so that he could keep throwing up in the bathtub. And it was kind of embarrassing because it hurt so much, it hurt like nothing Twill had ever felt before, and he was kind of crying, and the worst part was that Ross had one hand on the back of Twill’s neck — kind of in his hair, rubbing circles in the place where his hair met his neck--and the other sort of pushing down still on his stomach, where it hurt so bad still. Get it out, Ross had kept saying. Go ahead, I got you. But it had hurt like hell.

The next morning, Twill had woken up in a bed like the one Simms is in now. Only, he remembered everything. The bruise on him was big enough that there was a whole investigation, even though Twill maintained he’d fallen into a bannister and no one else said anything. Anyway, the University had an eye on them now.

That was why they couldn’t do stuff like that anymore.


A day passes and Twill agrees to meet D Sig president Mike Aberly at the coffee shop across from Mike’s off-campus apartment. It’s a strange choice — Twill thinks of coffee shops as date-places, or three-days-post-hookup places — but Mike wanted it. Mike is dressed as he always is, button-down and rolled-up sleeves, and his face bears none of the pressing, pulverizing exhaustion Twill feels. Twill sits down without ordering. Mike skips small talk.

“I hear you told Peter Simms he’s on thin ice.”

“He is, isn’t he? He killed Jacqueline Marguerite’s fish.”

“Unfortunate consequence of his training.”

“It was her fish.”

“He was just trying to impress her.”

“She’s not impressed.”

“Who gives a shit?”

“She does.”

Mike rubs at an invisible smudge on the table with his thumb. “Graham, Peter Simms is an idiot.”

“Clearly.”

“But he’s a good guy.”

Twill is suddenly very, very hungry. In front of him, Mike has a half-eaten scone and a greasy, balled-up napkin. Twill pulls off a chunk of scone without asking, mostly to see what Mike will do. He doesn’t blink.

“Are you sure?” Twill asks.

“I’ve known Peter for a long time,” Mike says.

This information, while previously unknown to Twill, does not surprise him. “From Cape Cod or something?” He can’t remember if Mike goes to Cape Cod, but he thinks he might. Twill is embarrassed by his own bitterness.

“No,” says Mike, but doesn’t elaborate. So clearly it’s something likeCape Cod, but more.

“Look.” Twill spreads his fingers out on the table. “I feel like maybe this should go to Hearing.”

Mike laughs, and Twill’s known Mike long enough to know the laugh is genuine.

“I’m serious,” Twill says.

“Graham — no. You want the guys to vote on this? This is nothing.”

“I don’t know.”

“Graham. This could be worse, right?” He lowers his voice. “She’s not saying he did any shit to her, right? Because he didn’t. So we’re good.”

“He killed her fish,” Twill hears himself say.

At this, Mike actually leans across the table and briefly cups Twill’s face between his hands. “It was a fish,” he says. “Pay attention, buddy.”

There is a brief silence in which Twill accepts this but doesn’t want to accept him accepting it. Then he asks, “Do you remember Ross Planchett?”

Mike laughs. “Yeah, I remember Planchett. Didn’t he hit you?”

Twill lifts his hand to the back of his neck. “Yeah.”

“You should calm down about this Simms stuff,” Mike says. He swipes what remains of the scone off the table. “I’ll have him write an apology and we’ll send him to alcohol safety training, but that’s it. Ok?”

“Yeah, ok.” The back of Twill’s neck feels hot, sweaty.

There is a chime at the door and Mike’s dark-haired girlfriend steps inside. Mike stands and Twill realizes that he is being dismissed.

“Everything good?” Mike asks Twill.

“Yeah,” Twill says again.


Three weeks later, Simms and his pledge class are initiated two hours before Spring Formal. Twill sits on the steps of the Graduate Club with his hands in the pockets of his blazer and watches them walk past. These are his kids, all in dark suits and ties with girls — or, in two cases of rare victory for D Sig diversity, boys — on their arms, and it’s almost warm and they all grin at Twill as they walk past, drop his name like coins at his feet. Twill nods at them. He lights a cigarette and watches people watch him. They don’t smoke here the way they did back home. Smoking, even outside, even on a night like this one with lights in the trees and cheap champagne in buckets, is humiliating.

Simms is wearing navy blue with a red tie like a state senator and without seeing Twill, he steps back and lets his date walk up the steps ahead of him. Twill looks at and doesn’t recognize her — freshman. When he reaches Twill, Simms stops.

“Hey, Graham,” he says.

Twill manages not to frown at the use of his first name. “Peter.”

Simms gestures behind him. “This is Leigh, my date. Leigh, this is Graham — he’s kind of like my boss. Or was.” Simms laughs.

Leigh looks beautiful and freezing. Twill stands to shake her hand, which is so cold it feels like shaking a dead person’s hand. Twill tells Leigh it’s nice to meet her.

For a moment, both men stand staring at each other with the girl between them, her fingers still wrapped in Twill’s, the sounds of the Graduate Club distant and echoing and then Simms says, “Your knot’s a little fucked up.”

Twill drops Leigh’s hand. He looks down at his own tie. He can’t see anything wrong with it.

“Oh, yeah,” he says. “Thanks.”

Simms grins and slaps him on the back. “I’ll see you in there,” he says.


Lily Berlin Dodd

is an undergraduate at Yale. Her previous work has been published in One Teen Story Magazine and on Audible.com.

All contributions from Lily Berlin Dodd

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