I have a fish phobia. It’s not dire–I’m fine with pictures and whatnot, and I’m usually down with the Nova, but fishtanks can give me the willies, free or not.

The first time I saw one of those sucky fish glued to the side of an aquarium, I did the girly scream and dance. I was an adult. In public. And my most terrifying moment in recent memory, in terms of a sense of imminent doom, came while snorkeling in Hawaii. OK, coral–goes with the rest of the surreal I’m-really-here Hawaii experience; fish, yeah, they live here, I suppose, but they’re over there and I’m over . . . um, they’re over . . . um, there are a lot . . .

I heard myself scream through my snorkel, which was pathetic beyond belief, and I banged a uey and swam back to shore as hard and as fast as I could, which wasn’t very impressive, as I’m not much of a swimmer. It still literally makes me shudder to remember that desperate terrified battle to avoid . . . being touched or eaten or something.

I sobbed on the shore, until my spouse came to console me. He was nice enough to not be laughing very hard, but I was homicidal, as he’d checked the sitch out ahead of time and pronounced it largely fish-free. Apparently, between the time he’d been there and the time he’d fetched me back, somebody must have fed them one of those candy bar things, and they were . . . looking for more food. Which I already viscerally knew. (You can get these nummy sticks of about the size of a banana that will attract swarms of the things so they will come and nibble it out of your hand. This is incomprehensible to me.)

Big aquariums require me to be brave. But I like them. They’re sort of like horror movies with a gift shop. In fact, I like fish in the abstract–and in an attempt to man up to the piscine world, I used to own an aquarium. One with teeny fish, not the ones the size of a salad plate like in my doctor’s waiting room. I grew fond of them, and declared war on a snail infestation with self-righteous fervor.

But I never knew what the deal was. I’ve had a fair share of trauma in my fascinating life, but none involving fish as far as I knew. The flopping and skittering maybe? Nah. There are lots of things I’m not keen on touching because they move like that, but I don’t go screaming through my snorkel over them.

Then tonight, one of those childhood memories hit, and it makes sense now.

My dad was a fish tank guy, and I loved them. I would watch them for hours. Back when I was five, I loved going to the fish store and helping pick new ones out. He had a Jack Dempsey whom he named “Hannibal the Cannibal” for good reason, so we went to the fish store regularly. (Dad eventually gave up on the defenseless mollies and snackfood neons and switched to bigger, tougher fish.)

On one trip, I saw a tank full of the cutest itty frogs you ever did see. Adorable. Maybe two inches long. They stayed in the water, and swam around, and ate fish food. I was completely enamored, so Dad got some. That afternoon, I woke up from my post-shopping nap and heard my father cursing in the living room. I ran in to see Hannibal swimming around with the still-kicking legs of one of my tiny frogs protruding from his mouth. Oh, the poor, poor little frog! How horrible to get digested to death! My father extracted him, but of course it was too late.

Thinking back, this was the first time I had ever seen something I cared about being killed before my eyes–I had no control; I didn’t even see justice for my dead: Dad refused to flush him; for some reason he really liked the bastard. Hannibal the Cannibal became the repository for all my rage and fear; he himself had been a trusted (if despised) part of my life. Now this slimy little creature was swimming around unscathed and unrebuked, despite being a bringer of death.

Obviously an overreading in adult terms, but I was five. Come on now. Besides, 43 years later, I still want to bludgeon the sheeping thing to death with a chopstick. Poor little frog. I’m curious now as to whether the peaceable and upright, the clean-living and frog-eschewing fish I meet in the future will lose some of their terror after my squarely facing my trauma. I hope so.

Do sharks count?

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