Short Story The Five-Year Plan
The family in my novel is like this arowana. Born to hurt things. They are hunters, even when there is nothing left to hunt.
In the first and second years, I will continue as I am. I will do my hours at the pet store, my daily drives from Mira Mesa to San Marcos and back, my writing at night. I will make my money. I will practice meditation, mindfulness, and monogamy.
In the third year, I will make a change. Though the nature of this change is unknown to me now, it will not surprise me then. After this change, years four and five will be glorious, better than every year before them by a factor of at least ten, full of business opportunities, artistic breakthroughs, romantic escapades, and copious drug use. These will be years of celebration.
I will shave my head and give my earthly things to the owner of my favorite bar. I will move to another city. I will find a new favorite bar. I will stop using the word body in both my speech and my writing. I will take the bus. I will take the train. I will take seriously the advice of my father. I will become the king of this country. I will drink its water and water its drinks. I will give my nights to people less foreign than me, smoking with them beneath fluorescent lights and the glow of expensive liquor. I will feel the way I feel. I will finish my novel and sell it so as not to be tied down. I will pay off the student loans of everyone I have ever loved.
My hair will grow back on its own.
In my novel, there is a girl who, like me, works at an aquarium fish, amphibian, and reptile supply store in Mira Mesa, California. My store is called AquaZone and the girl’s store is called PetZone.
I intend to end the novel with an earthquake, the tanks crashing to the floor, their inhabitants twitching around the tile like wet fingers. In the aftermath, surrounded by glass and bodies at the end of a closing shift, the girl realizes she needs to be far, far away from where she is now, this stale neighborhood with its stale memories and ethnic grocers and vape shops and aquarium fish, amphibian, and reptile supply stores. She climbs into her 2001 Camry, her clothes still drenched in tank-water, and guns it to an unknown destination.
I don’t mind working at the store myself. The work is easy. Finn and I usually get very high before our shifts. Most of the customers consider themselves experts on the animals they keep, so they rarely bother us. I bag their fish, ring them up, then send them on their merry way. Sometimes, I charge them a dollar more or less than they really owe. I make sure the total by the time I close is exactly what it should be. I have been doing this for a year without consequences. I am in year one of my five-year plan.
AquaZone specializes in tropical freshwater fish—fancy guppies from Malaysia, bettas from Thailand, cichlids from the African Great Lakes. We have the best selection in San Diego County, and I unpack new shipments of our most popular species every week. Our reptiles and amphibians, on the other hand, have been here so long I have given them names. We have an albino ball python named André, an Australian green tree frog named Antwan, and an old one-eyed crocodile skink named Left Eye. The fish, both in real life and in my novel, stay nameless.
The most expensive fish we stock is the silver arowana. Silver arowana are carnivorous, with long bodies and sharp teeth. They tend to eat smaller fish but will go for birds and rodents if they can. Anything that strays too close to the water is theirs. The family in my novel is like this. Born to hurt things. They are hunters, even when there is nothing left to hunt. The dialogue is sparse because they speak with their eyes, which look like my eyes, only a bit off, like a reflection in a pond made foreign by the mouths breaking the surface.
You should write about your father, Finn says from the kitchen. I press save on the album review I am working on for my friend Takshil’s blog, close my laptop, and walk over to the kitchen. I can never concentrate on writing when Finn talks about writing.
The father Finn refers to lives in Irvine. Ba hoards things. He wears a bathrobe all day, continually plants and uproots his garden, and avoids speaking about my mother, who lives with her new family in Boston. Ba believes firmly in nonviolence. Ba thinks Mexicans are violent. He voted twice for a white supremacist. He is working on a novel. After he uses paper towels to wipe down the counter, he hangs them up to dry above the sink. Although he is a vegan, he made beef phở for me when I brought him his groceries this week. Finn thinks the novel might actually be about my father. He says all the foods Ba cooks can be italicized in the novel.
I don’t think the novel is going to be very cultural, I tell him.
Write what they want to read, he says. He gives his wokful of tofu scramble a flip and sends a decent chunk of it into the sink. I mount a salvage operation with a paper towel.
Finn never writes what people want to read. His poems are incredibly long, structurally chaotic, and full of excerpts from old texts, emails, and dating-app conversations. I like them a lot. His professor thinks he should delve more into formal work.
You know what I mean? Finn asks. The story is about a girl who runs away from home at sixteen, not a girl who works at a pet store. It’s about escape.
I began seeing Finn a year ago when he started at AquaZone, and I will probably continue to do so until year three or four of my plan. I imagine this is when he will leave me. He does not believe in planning.
Our first date began in the back room of the store and ended five hundred miles from here because I told him I wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge before I killed myself. He took this at face value and went along with it, splitting the gas with me. Finn says if he ends up in the novel, he expects to be the manic pixie dream boy, because there is not enough manic-pixie-dream-boy representation in contemporary fiction. He says to make his hair blue. Like an anime character, he says. I tell him I’ll consider it.
And honestly, Irene, I think you need to stop leaning on all the fish stuff, Finn says.
The novel is called The Aquarium , I say.
I clear the table. The whole apartment smells like sesame oil and turmeric. Finn puts on one of the Yoko Ono records he loves so much and partitions the tofu and rice into two blue bowls. The bowls are significant because Ba gave them to me the first time I visited him on my own. This was maybe a year ago.
I had been working a long shift unpacking and acclimating a shipment of otocinclus catfish. There is something sad about these tiny fish, the way their heads curve low into doglike snouts, the eyes above them so large compared to the rest of their heads. Otocinclus are very difficult to breed in captivity, so almost all of them are wild-caught and imported from streams in Venezuela. A fourth of these migrants die of shock before they ever make it to a tank.
The family in my novel is like this. Born to hurt things. They are hunters, even when there is nothing left to hunt.
As I finished netting the dead fish and dumping them, I thought of Ba and had the sudden urge to lie to him, to go to him and tell him I was getting married. I had not talked to him since my brother Khoa’s wedding. I closed the store, picked up some groceries, and drove straight to Irvine. He said congratulations. We ate my eggplant stew in the living room.
You’ve become very brave living on your own for so many years, Ba said. Marriage is not an easy thing.
I’m ready now, I said.
This lie began the biweekly grocery runs, the obligatory why-don’t-you-stay-for-dinners, the after-dinner beers, the offers to help him tidy up the place a bit. Whenever I came by, I brought fresh vegetables and more good news.
The university is giving me a raise, I said.
You deserve it and more, Ba said.
I’ve got a chapter from the novel coming out in a big magazine, I said.
You’ve always been sharp, he said.
I’m about to sign the lease on a new house in Del Mar, I said.
I expect you to fill it with children, he said.
And so on. With every lie, I placed myself another year from where I was. I kicked through my five-year plan and began to invent the years after that. Year six, year seven, year eight.
I imagine Finn chose to plate our dinner in Ba’s blue bowls specifically to hammer in his point about my novel. He makes subtle, significant choices like this because he is a poet. Sometimes, when Finn is asleep, I get on his laptop and try to arrange his poems into a manuscript. It is a lot easier than writing my own book. I let the pages fall onto each other like waves, his liberal use of white space blurring into seafoam. Each turn of phrase becomes a shoreline, reshaped five to ten poems later by one of his beautiful, lopsided images.
Arranging his poems feels like cheating on him. There is an intimacy to the way my imposed order bends Finn Burke’s words into a book by me, Irene Tran. I have made maybe seventy different books out of his poems. When I am finished for the night, I close the document without saving.
I suppose Finn is right, in that my father may be the reason I am writing a novel called The Aquarium . As children, Khoa and I spent a lot of time with him at different aquarium fish and supply stores, picking up filter cartridges and live plants and other things for Jet Li.
Jet Li is an ugly silver arowana who lives in a large glass tank in Ba’s living room. The tank is positioned directly in front of the apartment’s only good window, so any sun that makes its way in is rendered murky and green through the water, projecting Jet Li’s slender silhouette across what would be the opposite wall were it not obscured by a tower of shoeboxes. The effect is ominous as well as inconvenient.
It must be natural, Ba says. It has to resemble as precisely as possible the silver arowana’s natural habitat in the shaded jungle pools of Brazil. Under no circumstances are you and Khoa to turn on any of the lights in the living room. This fish must never know it lives in America.
The first time I lied to my father was about Jet Li. I was seven and had poured a bottle of Ba’s cough syrup into the aquarium filter. Ba spent all his time worrying over Jet Li—cleaning his tank, picking out his food, tracing his path through the water from his seat on the couch with his eyes glazed over. I wanted the fish dead.
When Ba came home and found the water inky and red, I saw a strange look of relief on his face. I blamed it on Khoa, but he knew it was me. Ba did not hit me that night. Jet Li did not die.
Today, I bring Ba water spinach, mushrooms, bok choy, tofu, and soya packets from Lucky Seafood, the Vietnamese grocery store in Mira Mesa. My mother never shopped at Lucky Seafood when Khoa and I were growing up, so it was actually Finn who took me for the first time. We didn’t buy anything. He just wanted to show me the massive Alaskan king crabs in their tanks. One day, he said, we will dine like kings. Five legs each. I made a note of this in my five-year planner: Become king, eat crab .
The lie I tell Ba today is that I have accepted a generous two-book deal for my novel and memoir. The novel exists but is neither finished nor sold. The memoir is a complete fiction. I tell him my fiancé and I will probably have to move to New York to be closer to the comings and goings of the literary world. I tell him Finn is looking for a teaching job there, then remember my made-up fiancé’s name is Jeremy, not Finn.
My father’s eyes narrow like shades. I correct myself. Jeremy. Finn is one of my advisees, I tell Ba. Long day at the university. In my head, my fiancé Jeremy is just like Finn, only a worse poet. I attempt to exude pride and confidence. I attempt to hide the cracks in the statue I have constructed.
Congratulations, says Ba. His voice sounds as if it has been steeped in decades of tar. He claps me on the back and goes to the kitchen for beer. We crack them open in the living room. I watch him disappear his drink as Jet Li makes circles in the tank. Jet Li is very old now, but he still swims smoothly. As he turns in the water, his eyes glint like silver dollars. I try and force my eyes to glint back. I am tired.
You may not know this, Ba says, but it is such a joy to see you become what I always knew you would be. You are a bright star of a girl. You are like me. You have my heart. He touches his chest as he says this. I cannot help but notice how long his nails are. I cannot help but hear a lie in his voice. His joy is not for me, but for himself. He is a joy-stealer, or, rather, a joy-misallocator.
When you were a child, he continues, your mother and I worried much more over you than your brother. It’s that heart of yours. It never wants to sit still. It’s why you left, no?
I have your heart, I tell him. I lie, I lie, I lie. I clutch my beer by its throat, rustle through his papers on the coffee table. What about you, Ba? How’s your novel coming along?
I’d love for you to read what I have, he says, but I’m sure you’re very busy.
No, no, I say. I’d love to.
You may not know this, Ba says, but it is such a joy to see you become what I always knew you would be.
The first person I tell is Finn. This telling takes place eight months before today. I tell him I take eighty milligrams of fluid in a green-and-orange capsule each morning so that I do not run away again. Telling him this does not remove the weight from my chest, but it does make my feet steadier.
And so I keep telling him. I tell him that when I ran away, I clutched the steering wheel so hard during the drive to San Francisco that my knuckles stayed blanched for a week. I tell him that my only stop besides gas stations was a rest area by Camp Pendleton, where I stalled on the edge of the cliff, staring down at the beach below, my foot just a hair away from the pedal. I tell him I did this again just a week ago.
I tell Finn other things too. I tell him I love my brother more than I will ever talk about. I tell him I am the biggest liar he will ever know. I tell him I spent twenty years angry at absolutely nothing, and after this I tell him the biggest secret of all: My father is not that bad of a man. Not really. He yelled at me, as all fathers do. He hit me, as many fathers do. His political beliefs are skewed, he owns more things than he will ever need, and he hated his wife, but he was mostly fine to me. Ba was fine to me in the way any one person is fine to anyone else. This fineness might be less than what a father should be, but it is not a crime. I ran away because I am a liar. I am such a big liar I managed to convince myself that my father is uglier than me.
After I tell him each of these things, I expect Finn to leave. He does not. I am uncertain whether this is an indicator of attachment or ambivalence. Uncertainty is the resting state of everything I have built between myself and the people I am supposed to care about. Finn and Ba, teetering on the ledge. The lives I have built, then dismantled, then built again.
Finn says he cannot be a receptacle for my unresolved childhood trauma, but what he can do is write with me. I can write my novel. He can write his poems. He does this. He writes a series of poems, all of them slender and full of quiet. One of them mentions me by name; another mentions my father. Several of these poems get published in a prestigious literary magazine based in Amherst, Massachusetts. My novel sits in a blue folder on my desktop.
At this point in time, Finn has slept with one other woman and I have thought about sleeping with one other man. Neither of us suspects anything. At this point in time, what we know is enough.
I am at home staring at a half-full bottle of pills when I decide to take Ba to AquaZone. I call him and tell him we will be picking up feeder goldfish for Jet Li at a new store I have found. I take him in Finn’s mother’s Lexus, which I say is mine. I do not remember that Finn is working his shift until he greets me at the door. Hey, Ree, he says. I keep my eyes on the ground. When Finn sees Ba enter behind me, his own eyes flash like sirens. Whatever lines bridge my father’s face with my own, Finn has traced them. He knows. He blushes and resumes organizing the premium fish foods up by the counter.
Do you two know each other? Ba asks.
I think there must be a mix-up, I reply.
We get a lot of Vietnamese customers, Finn says. His eyes say he knows what he has done.
How can you tell we are Vietnamese? Ba says.
Let’s go find our goldfish. Please, Ba. I tug Ba’s arm and point toward the back of the store. My face feels slick and warm and ugly. I dig my nails into the corner of my thumbs so hard I feel them go cold. I think of the girl from my novel and how small she felt on her last day of work.
The store is a kaleidoscope of fins and eyes. Ba gravitates toward the carnivorous fish, the oscars and redtail catfish and arowana. Maybe Jet Li needs a companion, he says. He’s getting old, you know. He needs to pass all his wisdom onto somebody. Maybe, I say. I walk around near the front of the store, frown at Finn up by the register. He flashes a grin. He does this knowing how close my world is to collapse. This is when I notice the frog on the floor.
There is something wrong with Antwan, the Australian green tree frog. He moves like a broken wind-up toy, pitching his body again and again into awkward somersaults across the tile. It must be something with his legs. I watch him land on his back once, then twice, then three times. I want to help him, but I don’t want to touch him. I don’t want my father to suspect anything. Antwan’s skin reminds me of a newly formed scab. If I pick him up wrong, I might crack him open and spill him.
Finn, I whisper. It’s Antwan. He must have fallen out of his tank on the counter and hurt himself. Not a joke. Come look.
Finn does not come look. Finn is watching Ba, who is in turn watching several silver arowana in a large tank at the back of the shop. Like Jet Li, only younger and much smaller. Arowana are mouthbrooding fish. The males carry their own young in their mouths until they are large enough to hunt for themselves. These fingerlings must have only just left their fathers. Ba is completely absorbed by them. Things like this—living things enclosed behind four walls—these things always demand his complete and unbroken attention. Finn is still watching Ba. He is probably writing a poem in his head.
I call for him again, and this time he perks up. He walks past the counter, crouches down, and pushes his glasses up the slope of his nose. Finn wears round wireframes. His eyes look nothing like mine. We sit there together for a while, staring down at this green lump struggling between us. It is horrible.
Why are you doing this? he asks.
Do you think we can fix him? I say.
I’m talking about your dad, he says.
I ignore him.
I think you should leave now. You have a problem, Irene. I’m serious. You can’t do things like this. Not here.
I agree, but it’s too late. I do nothing, and, so, he does something. Without another word, Finn snatches Antwan up and marches over to the aquarium Ba has been staring at. He drops the frog in. Ba looks up at him, then back at the tank. There is a bright mess of fins, the small green blur of the prey dancing between the large white blurs of the predators. Churning, churning, churning. Everything is alive. Nothing is still. Then, nothing. Then, still. In the jaws of the biggest, ugliest arowana—a frog’s leg, bent at an impossible angle. It twitches like a worm under a shoe.
Finn wrinkles his nose. Ba points at the fish and says something to him. Finn points at his nametag. There is a look in my father’s eyes that I cannot read. They look nothing like my eyes. He points again at the fish, then pulls out his wallet. I want to run away, but I don’t.
Neither of us suspects anything. At this point in time, what we know is enough.
I read my father’s novel today. It is written in a chaotic mix of Vietnamese and English. It is about a man whose youngest daughter runs away at the age of sixteen. The daughter leaves behind a note that reads a lot like a poem. In the daughter’s absence, the man’s wife grows restless and leaves him, taking their older son with her.
The man continues to live his life. He goes to the office in the morning, the bar after work, and his apartment after that. He keeps a large tank of water in the living room containing a single white fish, a sliver of moon with cruel eyes and an underbite. The fish has a name, but when the youngest daughter left, the man gave his daughter’s name to the fish. Every day, he feeds it live minnows from the local pet store, watches it gulp them down in the dark.
One day, the man retires. He has had enough of the life he is living. He makes a five-year plan. In years one through two, he will continue as he is, caring for his fish, his garden, himself. In year three, he will make a change.
The nature of this change is simple—he will stop lying, both to himself and to others. After this change, years four and five will be glorious, unrivaled by any and all years before them. These will be years of celebration.
The man will be reunited with his youngest daughter. The daughter will look something like her father. The daughter will be engaged to someone the man will never meet. The man will be enough on his own.