When the Wedding Favors Have Fins

White linens lined the tables, and Barbra Streisand’s voice filled the air. The banquet hall oozed with love. We paid our respects to the bright-eyed newlyweds and took our seats. And that’s when I first saw him.

The glass vase, the centerpiece of it all, confined not flowers, but fins. There he swam, in endless circles, bordered by a ring of porcelain plates and framed by shining silverware like armor.

He watched us exchange pleasantries with our tablemates, the angst-filled silence filling gaps in conversation, and the moment we awkwardly stood for the first dance. He, of course, said nothing.

As I took her hand in mind and swayed my hips to the melody, I saw them all–a dozen more like him–in their own glass jails.

Food was consumed in excess, laughs echoed from the walls, and a young child’s rendition of the Macarena was the talk of the night. Meanwhile, his eyes were opals, relics of an underwater world, captivating my own.

Guests filed out at midnight, clutching the glass vases to their chests. A dozen wedding favors, heading home. Home: a sphere of invisible walls atop a glass counter top, forever.

But he remained. His options quickly became clear: Live at the bar, a fly on the wall behind a parade of drunken sobs and sloppy kisses.

Or… Go home. With us.

The decision was made. He sloshed up and down in his bowl, gaping up at us, as we tiptoed into the night. The drive home was slow–after all, he was delicate cargo.

It wasn’t ideal, his captive life. We set him up in a respectable tank with colors, rocks, obstacles. A taste of a challenge beyond swimming the same curved path day in and day out.

He was mellow, mostly. Curious but not carefree. Bold but modest. And, as expected of a male Betta fish, he was not so fond of his own brilliant reflection.

Then, when fed, he’d get this streak, this fierceness, and he became a vibrant blue sea dragon, mightily conquering his freeze-dried food. He was braver than any human I’ve ever met.

I learned where he came from, probably: Imprisoned in a minuscule plastic bag or container with just enough water to survive. Blue-tinted water, captivating and surreal to a child’s wandering eyes–tranquilizing to him. An additive used to calm Bettas as they endure the trauma of transport over hundreds of miles to their destination: the store shelf.

Roux, as we called him, had some semblance of enrichment, our best attempt to disguise the artificiality of his habitat. But most don’t. They spend their days and months in small vases that limit their access to oxygen, which they breathe in at the water’s surface.

In stagnant water, often deprived of their natural diet of insects, they often perish.

Roux lived with us for more than a year before succumbing to illness. Burying him under our apple tree, we wiped away tears. We planted one of his neon plastic trees as a grave marker. We thought we’d done it right. He could’ve lived to be 5.

But a tank can never be a pond.

And that radiant blue hue–imprinted onto him through years of selective breeding–was never meant to be.

But on that one romantic night, at least he matched the bridesmaids’ dresses.

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