Robbie asks himself again and again — why did I love this girl?
By Michelle Secunda
Fifteen minutes ago I was awoken by my phone buzzing against the puckered wood of my dresser. Sleepily I reached for it, answering without looking at the caller. “Jerome killed himself,” said the tear-muffled voice of the ex-girl-of-my-dreams.
“Izzie?” my voice was hoarse from sleep, and my brain was working hard to keep up. Moments ago I was blissfully unconscious, and then there she was, Izzie Cartwright, breaking a year of disinterest with a single phone call at three in the morning.
“Who else would tell you about Jerome? He killed himself, Robby, it’s suicide.” She broke down crying harder.
I paused, unsure of what to do. Jerome is a fish. The kind that’s supposed to never die even if you forget to feed it for a while or don’t change its water. I know this because I got Jerome for Izzie last year after she killed the cactus I got her for Valentine’s Day. Back then I thought it was cute, her inability to nurture even the most hostile plant. Now I understand that she can’t nurture anything. When you have no soul it’s hard to care about things, I guess.
Part of me wanted to hang up, roll over, and go back sleep, leaving Izzie to hear the dial tone. Let her be alone this time. Let her be left waiting for a response she will never get. But Izzie was crying on the other end of my cell phone. She was crying and asking me to come over because she couldn’t deal with the fish suicide alone. She was crying and I could hear the sound of her sobs echoing through her empty house. She was Izzie and she was crying, and no matter how much I hate Izzie Cartwright, I can’t stand to hear her cry. The manipulative bitch probably knew that, but whatever, I was awake anyway.
So here I am, in her driveway, like so many times before. It’s late February and the trees are bare and the grass is brown and there isn’t even snow. The Cartwright yard is dark and cold and ugly as I walk through it up the stairs to her porch and knock on the red front door.
The door bursts open and Izzie Cartwright throws herself into my arms like I have just rescued her from a dragon, her red curls floating over my face before falling down her back. I’m holding Izzie Cartwright. And she smells like Izzie Cartwright, like peaches and brown sugar. And she feels small and sturdy like Izzie Cartwright and fits against me like she always did. I close my eyes, and it is last year and she still loves me and we are still a ‘we.’ Rizzie, her friends called us. We had a couple name. I pretended to hate it but secretly loved being tethered so closely to the most amazing girl in the entire school, perhaps even the entire world.
Izzie pulls away, wiping her teary eyes with her sleeve, and I snap back to this February night on her porch where she still looks stunning despite her red puffy eyes and slightly snotty nose. She’s in her pajamas, which are just loose-fitting leggings and an old Yankees t-shirt that falls to her upper thigh. Why do I find her attractive even when she’s pajama-clad and crying? Why do I find her attractive when I know what she did to me, how she mercilessly ripped out my heart and devoured it. Why do I wish I had taken the time to comb my messy mop of dark brown bedhead?
“Thank God you came,” Izzie says, taking my hand and pulling me into her house. Inside it’s warm, and it smells like it always used to, and I wonder if I will ever be able to walk into this house without imagining me and Izzie on the couch wrapped in each other. Izzie’s parents both work fancy jobs in the city, and her house is always empty, leaving it as the go-to place for extended periods of alone time. Just us in this big empty house. “My parents are in Chicago for some conference.” Izzie sniffs, leading me through the dark rooms of the downstairs. Just us in this big empty house. My heart aches in confusion. What am I doing here? Am I asking to get repeatedly tortured?
Izzie’s room is its usual disaster zone with clothes and makeup littering all the surfaces and a bed so unmade it seems like the sheets and comforter may never sort themselves out. Don’t think about the last time you were here, I order myself. Sitting on her desk, which is more like a makeup station than a place a person would do work, is a fishtank with poor Jerome floating upside down at the top. Izzie sees my eyes lock on the fish and starts crying again.
“I was about to go to sleep when I heard a soft bumping noise, so I sat up and looked around and I couldn’t see where it was coming from. I even checked my phone and computer to make sure I hadn’t left something on. And then I saw it, it was Jerome, he was swimming into the side of the fish tank, like he was trying escape, and smashing his head against it. He did it over and over again. I tried to stop him. I yelled at him to stop but I think I made it worse because I think he started swimming at it harder and then there was a big thunk and he… he stopped moving…” Izzie is sitting on her bed, a pillow pulled close, pressed between her curled up knees and her chest. She hugs the pillow, letting her tears bleed into the colorful pillowcase, turning the hot pink to red. I long to go over and put my arm around her as I stroke her hair and whisper “shh, shh.” But I don’t. I ignore her and go to examine the fish. That’s why she called me, after all.
Jerome is belly up, definitely dead and lifeless with the still water barely making his corpse sway over the fake plastic plant and miniature open treasure chest. I wonder why Izzie even kept Jerome. She could have given him away to someone more suited to be a fish owner. It’s odd how I never thought about him after she dumped me. Never thought of her caring about the fish who was given to her by a boy she did not care about.
I want to ask her why she kept Jerome. I want to ask why she called me instead of Wes Conrad who I know took up the high occupancy position of Izzie’s latest boyfriend, or Tami Franklin who’s her best friend and never really liked me because I’m on the track team and not the football team. I want to ask her how she knew I would come, even after she shrugged me off like a parka. I want to yell at her. I want to kiss her. I want her to want me again, and I want her to never speak to me again. But it’s after 3 a.m. and Jerome has killed himself so I just sigh and turn away from the watery grave to look at Izzie, who’s looking at me wide eyed, and say, “Well, we should flush him.”
“Fl-flush him?” Izzie says sniffling.
“Yeah, the fish is dead, you flush dead fish down the toilet. You’ve seen ‘Finding Nemo.'” I shrug, pretending not to notice fresh tears welling in Izzie’s eyes. Don’t care about her, I instruct myself, don’t care about her.
“How can you be so crass about this? Jerome is dead! And not only that but he committed suicide! He was probably depressed and we didn’t even notice.” Izzie flings herself deeper into her bed. I rub my forehead with my palm. My head is starting to ache. When I was dating Izzie, she was my world. I would wake up thinking about getting to see her and go to bed remembering all the moments I got to breathe her oxygen that day. She was the person, my person, the one I thought I was supposed to be with. Sure, I knew she had dated a lot of guys, but I thought I was different. She made me believe I was different.
I was the only one she cried in front of, her tears bleeding into my button-down shirt that I save for special occasions like when Izzie Cartwright invites you to her father’s company’s Christmas party. We were sitting in the entranceway, a wall between us and the crowded party of grownups that contained business people from all over the world and noticeably didn’t contain Mr. or Mrs. Cartwright. They texted their assistant that they got delayed and wouldn’t be attending. They never texted their daughter, so she found out from some women in a red cocktail dress who looked at her like she was a lost sock outside a laundromat, tragic and slightly disgusting. That was the moment I saw Izzie Cartwright crumple, fold in on her dazzling self and cling onto me in a way I had never seen her cling to any guy before. And we sat there as I stroked her hair and she cried into my chest.
And then she sniffled and hiccuped and seemed to snap back into herself, her eyes looking up at me big and shocked like she didn’t realize I was there until just that moment. She held my gaze and I held hers and it was the only time in our whole relationship when I didn’t feel like I was the lucky one, when I felt that maybe we were both the lucky ones, that we both might need each other instead of me just needing her. And she kissed me long and gently and when she broke away it was like she had never been crying. She was the beautiful, composed girl she usually was and she said, “I was being stupid, it’s actually great that they’re not here. We should go back into the party and take some champagne to my house. Now I know my parent won’t be there, we can have some actual fun.”
That is exactly what we did. But even though she laughed and kissed and brushed her hair off her shoulder the same way she had every other time I was in her presence, something had shifted. Because I had seen her crack and crumble just enough to know she was in there.
Only for her to prove me wrong. The thing about living in the world of Izzie Cartwright is that just because she tells you she loves you as you drink stolen champagne in an empty house on Christmas Eve doesn’t mean she does. Even if she says it with big open eyes, crying while holding you close. Because then you might say something stupid like — “I love you too” — and she’ll turn her big eyes to cold eyes and laugh in a way that is not gentle and say, “I knew it, I knew as soon as I said it you would too. God you’re so predictable, Robby.” At the time I laughed. I laughed because I was in the world of Izzie Cartwright. And then she ripped that world away from me.
Now here I am stepping right back into it. But enough is enough. I came here, I saw the fish, I listened to her cry, and now I’m going to flush Jerome, and with him any other tether I have to Izzie Cartwright will swirl down the drain.
I take the late Jerome’s fish tank in my hands. Izzie sits up, following me out of her bedroom. “That’s just it? You’re just doing it now, no goodbye? No funeral?”
I turn around, not realizing how closely Izzie is following me. My abrupt stop makes the water in the fish tank slosh, dampening my shirt. Izzie is very close to me, Jerome’s tank the only thing separating us. There’s a beat of silence where we both take in the moment. Izzie and Robby, so close, almost touch in the silent empty house.
“Why did you call me?” I ask because out of all the questions it is the easiest.
“Jerome killed himself,” Izzie says, her tone earnest and soft, like a child.
“Anyone can flush a fish,” I say.
Izzie looks down at Jerome’s body floating between us and when she looks back at me her eyes are glistening and her words are more constricted, like there is something clogging her throat. “You gave him to me. He was ours,” she says.
Ours like that was still something she could say about her and me. I bite my lips and turn sharply away from her, walking towards the bathroom. She grabs my wrist in hers and I stop, not because she’s physically strong enough to stop me from moving, but because the shock she sends through my whole body is familiar and confusing and electric. When will I not be in love with Izzie Cartwright? When will I be able to just flush this goddam fish in peace and leave her to cry alone?
“Robby.” My name is said so softly and lovingly in Izzie’s voice it makes me shiver. I turn slightly towards her, holding the tank like a shield against whatever she’ll say next. “Thank you… for coming. I — I know it ended badly but, but Jerome needed his family for the funeral and I — it seemed important that you were here.”
Me, important to Izzie Cartwright, even now, in the early hours of the morning, this seems unbelievable. That night, she said, “That’s cute Robby, but it’s time for you to go, we were never that great anyway.” Her eyes were cold and sharp and soulless, like her. Now, looking at her in the dim light of the hallway I wonder which Izzie is the real Izzie Cartwright, the one that cries for a fish, or the one that laughs at a broken heart.
“You discard me like I’m trash but you need a whole funeral for a fish that killed itself. Why am I here?” It only takes a sentence for Izzie to turn from the teary damsel to the ice cold warrior. It’s a shift in her eyes, and a straightening of her spine, a curve of her mouth into a cruel smile. It’s the way she’s able to look down on me even though I’m taller than she is. Pity. That’s it, I guess.
“You’re here because you still love me, Robby,” she says the words flatly but that makes them worse. Because it’s a fact not an opinion, and we both know it. I stand there, still holding the tank, blinking at Izzie Cartwright. I don’t know what to say. To deny it would be pathetic. To agree would be weak.
I look down at Jerome floating in peaceful death and feel slightly jealous. I then remember something important: I don’t have to be here. Izzie does not in fact own me, and I owe her nothing. I shove the fish tank into her hands. She looks at me bewildered. “I gave you the fish, it’s yours, you flush it,” I say trying to be as cold as she was. I start walking towards the stairs but I hear a squeak behind me as Izzie tries not to cry. Don’t turn around, don’t turn around.
I turn around. She is on the floor with the fish tank between her legs and her head in her hands. I pause, not moving. She is cold and mean and has no soul. And she is crying.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she cries and I realize she is not apologizing to me, she is apologizing to Jerome. “I tried so hard to keep you alive. I even set that alarm on my phone to feed you. Why’d you leave? You just left me here. You left me here.” I don’t know if Izzie knows I’m watching her but for the first time all night I know that the tears are not for my benefit, that she didn’t drag me here to play with me because she was bored. That of all the living things vying for the love of Izzie Cartwright, she somehow managed to bestow it onto a fish. And then that fish killed itself.
Izzie is crying. I take a deep frustrated breath. I walk back the few paces I had managed to take toward the door and sit next to her, both of us leaning against the wall of the hallway. I think about taking her hand, but she’s clutching the fish tank and that’s probably better for both of us anyway. Izzie peeks up through her hair at me, like she’s afraid to see me. What does she have to be afraid of? I never did anything to her except love her.
She tucks her long red hair behind her ear, clearing her vision to meet my eyes. “You can leave Robby. I know you want to,” she says, and her voice is clear and concise but there’s a softness to it I’ve seldom heard. Like she’s a child who plays cold-hearted bitch the way most play princess.
I do want to leave. So why am I here sitting on the floor next to Izzie, so close but not touching? Why does this feel important, like if I were to get up I would lose something, a piece of me that I’m clinging to the same way Izzie is holding onto Jerome’s tank, with white knuckles and desperation? Maybe Izzie will see me staying here as me being weak, but who cares? What does it matter what Izzie thinks? It won’t change anything. And it won’t bring Jerome back to life. “I’m good here —” is all I say.
“No you’re not,” Izzie says looking at me very closely, as if trying to crack a code that is printed on my face. Solve for ‘X’ and break the boy forever. “Soon you’ll leave, you’ll want to, and you will.” Carefully Izzie reaches her hand up and strokes my cheek, sending shivers down my spine. “That’s the kind of person I am Robby, the kind that gets left. Even a fish knows that.”
I thought back to when I was the lesser half of Rizzie. I thought back to Izzie’s smile, or the way she always had some adventure just around the corner. Or the way she would kiss me so I felt like I was the only person in the world who mattered. I would have stayed there forever.
But then I think of that afternoon about a year ago after we had dated for nine months when she asked if I wanted to get closer and she took off her dress and made love to me in her messy disaster of a room. She knew I had never done it before and I thought she might be cruel about it but she wasn’t; she was kind and beautiful. Looking into her eyes as our bodies joined together made me feel like I mattered more than I had the moment before. She cried a little and I was afraid I had messed up or hurt her but she just shook her head and pulled me closer as new tears pooled and tumbled. After — I held her close, both of us breathing hard, and I felt more connected to her than anyone else on the planet. She buried her face in my bare chest, and her eyelashes tickled my shoulder. And I kissed her hair and said, “I’m not saying this because of the sex, but, I’m your guy Iz. I know you don’t like mushy romance stuff, but, well, I love you, and I always will. I’ll always be your guy.”
And she looked away from my chest and up at me and for a minute I could almost see her brain adjusting and her eyes softening and I thought maybe this was it, and something would solidify in the roller coaster world of Izzie Cartwright. But then she closed her eyes and when she opened them a moment later, her eyes were cold and sharp and empty, like her. She laughed without humor and said, “That’s cute Robby. But it’s time for you to go, we were never that great anyway.”
And I wasn’t sure if she meant the sex wasn’t great or I wasn’t great in general but she had gotten out of bed and was putting on her bathrobe and tossing my clothes over to me and looking away. And I just blinked at her and asked, “Are you breaking up with me?”
“I just don’t feel it anymore. I’m going to shower, you should leave.” That was what nine months boiled down to. Nine months and my virginity all dismissed. In a single instant I was forced to readjust my view. I was just one of her guys. I watched her walk out the door to her room, taking so much of me with her. I put my clothes on and left her house.
And then nothing. She avoided me and I avoided her and every time I accidentally saw her I felt like the wind was knocked out of me. And then Jerome killed himself and here I am. And here she is, with her hand gently on my face.
“I would have stayed,” I whisper to Izzie and to myself thinking back on the moment she ended it.
A sad smile crept up Izzie’s cheek, and a tear dislodged from her eye. “You think that, but you’re wrong.”
“Don’t tell me what I would have done, you don’t know, you never gave us a chance, you just ended it.” I don’t realize I’m yelling until I stop, and the house returns to its repressive silence.
But the yelling doesn’t seem to faze Izzie much. She takes in a shuddering breath. “You said ‘I’m your guy.’ But it’s like I’m broken and where the love gene is I just have nothing, empty. And as soon as someone figures that out, they leave. And you would leave Robby, everybody does. That’s who I am.” I let Izzie’s words hang in the air like humidity in July. I look at her like she’s a lost sock outside a laundromat and wonder how I was ever frightened of her. Cruel. Empty. Yes, she is all of that. But I was her guy. She wouldn’t admit it, but I was hers.
“Did you love me?” I blurt out before I can stop myself.
“It doesn’t matter. Even Jerome found a way to leave and he was confined to a tank,” Izzie says.
“It matters to me,” I say.
There’s a pause, as if Izzie were choking on words that refuse to form, and then were released like a floodgate. “After I broke up with you, I was all alone. And then the light from the window hit Jerome’s tank just right so it made a rainbow on my wall. I looked at the rainbow, and I knew Jerome wouldn’t leave me like you did. Until he killed himself. Imagine what I could have done to you, if I can drive a fish to suicide.”
She drops her hand from my face but I catch it and hold it. Izzie loved me. But she’s right, about her emptiness. I’ve seen it in those moment when we were close and she would look away or make a joke. In the way she cried when we made love because she couldn’t look away, couldn’t joke, had to face me and the way I loved her deeply. And she couldn’t handle that, maybe because she is broken.
But she’s also Izzie Cartwright. And she is crying. And I am holding her hand and placing my arm around her shoulder and whispering, “shh, shh.” She folds into me soft and gentle, and I stroke her hair, and Jerome’s tank wobbles on her legs, making Jerome’s corpse slosh around. When her sobs subside I say, “It’s time to say goodbye to Jerome.” And I stand up and take the tank from her and we walk into the bathroom.
I lift the toilet seat and remove the fake plant and treasure chest from the tank, placing them on the sink counter, then I turn with the bowl to the toilet. I look over at Izzie, arms folded, sitting on the bathtub. “Uh, anything you want to say?” She covers her mouth with her hand as if talking would make her cry again and shakes her head.
I look back at Jerome, his small body floating calmly, and pour him and the water of the fishbowl smoothly into the toilet. Jerome floats in the white porcelain bowl. “Here lies Jerome,” I say, “the most loved fish in the whole world.” And I flush the toilet, sending Jerome down the pipes to wherever fish go after they’ve killed themselves.
I sit next to Izzie on the edge of the bathtub. “Thanks,” she whispers.
“Of course,” I say, putting my arm around her shoulders.
I don’t know how long we sit there, on the edge of Izzie Cartwright’s bathtub, looking across the small room at the tan marble of the counter next to the sink. On it sits the fish bowl once inhabited by the suicidal Jerome, flanked by the plastic plant, the only thing resembling something living Izzie has not killed, and the treasure chest, its fake gold looking shabby, having been removed from the gleam of the water. The bowl just sits there, as dawn begins to break through the small window of the bathroom, the fresh light of morning glistening off the glass of the tank. The sun turns the flickering glass into something magical. But we both know that there’s nothing inside of it, Jerome is long gone. The tank is nothing more than a beautiful empty shell.
Michelle Secunda lives in NYC, where she writes for a company called Dyslexiaville, which produces multimedia for children with learning differences. She received a BA in Anthropology and Sociology (minor in Creative Writing) from Knox College, which lead her to believe in the power of storytelling to affect culture. Her favorite thing to do is make messes with clay, words, and life choices. Sometimes it arrives at something beautiful, and other times… well, it’s a good thing Michelle loves a nice tragicomedy.