IN-LAWS by Laura Tanenbaum
by Laura Tanenbaum
“In five years, I’m going to fall in love with a fish,” the four-year-old declares, over hard-boiled eggs, on a ninety-degree day, to no one in particular. “They will be rainbow-colored with gray and black stripes. I will teach them to walk on their fin so they can come to our house. And I will teach them how to breathe. I will say, ‘It’s easy, fish. Just breathe like you did in water; only, it’s air.’ ”
His brother tells him he might need to compromise. Maybe six months on land, six months in the water, like the high-powered couples do. No, he says, concerned. The fish has to come to him. I’m watching his concern, trying to see which plane of reality he’s accessing, except that I no longer know what I mean by this. I know only that the words “imagination” and “metaphor” are insufficient to the task. And so I take his side. After all, we’ve learned from David Attenborough that evolution has carried countless creatures from the sea to us, not one has reversed course. When you forget how to make gills, they stay forgotten.
All of this may be why, the next day, after the temperatures had plunged thirty degrees overnight and the NYC Parks department and I both failed to adjust—me without a jacket, them, blasting the sprinklers—I was the only one who didn’t rush to pull a child back from the flood. He stomped on every fountainhead, threw himself on the ground. When he came to me, shivering, and the only change of clothes I had was shorts, and I saw the mother who had frantically been calling her Juniper back from the brink shoot me the look reserved for the parents of bad-example children, it took everything I had not to shout, You don’t understand! He’s looking for his fishwife! Wants to learn to live in her world! Learning to be flexible! And aren’t they going to need that what with the world and everything. . . Because I’m sure that Juniper’s mother would understand. That, like me, she has trouble imagining the future these days. That she would be comforted as I am by the thought of my future self, a crone in a cave, welcoming in any creature still capable of both tenderness and survival, teaching my son to tend to her scales.
Laura Tanenbaum is a writer, teacher, and parent living in Brooklyn, NY. She has published poetry and short fiction in Aji, Catamaran, Trampoline, Rattle, and many other venues. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Dissent, Entropy, and elsewhere. She teaches at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. Her nonfiction flash piece “In-Laws” received Honorable Mention in Cleaver’s 2022 flash contest judged by Meg Pokrass.