Whenever I see a fish tank- whether in a dentist’s office or in the Caribbean, I am instantly transported back to Deneen Prezero’s house during my fifth grade year. Perhaps it was the audacious presence of the sleek white Cadillac her father dropped her off in on that first day of school that instantly set her apart from the rest of us. Amidst the winter-battered station wagons and Peugots she might as well have alighted from a gold chariot drawn by tigers. We peered out at the new girl between the classroom drawn window blinds as she strode towards our classroom door. Our teacher Mr. Wheeler, kept muttering, "My word! My word!” and paced behind his desk in his dandruff-dusted tweed blazer. While we her classmates wore ribboned hair and Fair Isle sweaters, Deneen sported pantsuits, pierced ears with dangling diamonds and long painted fingernails, which rivaled Cher's. At recess we didn’t invite her to play dodge ball and when our field hockey coach asked if she wanted to wear gloves to protect her nails we flashed each other smirky looks. But when Deneen threw a birthday party and invited the entire class to her house we all accepted. She lived about an hour away, in a town we had never visited but knew existed by its dot on the train line that linked our little seaside town to Boston. My mother pulled up our weary Ford Country Squire next to the white Cadillac on the night of the party. On the door, was silver P and Mrs. Prezero soon appeared in front of it, wearing a flowing silk tunic.
She beckoned us in as though we were her guests at a cocktail party and explained that the magician would be coming soon and asked if we would like a house tour? My best friend holly and I squeezed hands behind our backs. The most parents ever seemed to ask us when we visited their homes was when our parents would be back to collect us. Deneen’s handed us Coke in tumblers and we then followed her and Mrs. Prezero through the low ceilinged terrarium-like rooms that seemed bathed in an orange glow. Dance music from invisible sources throbbed around us and gave us the thrilling feeling that we were in a nightclub. The houses we lived in were rambling spaces filled mostly with faded furniture, sensible patterns and a dog or two. If music was played, it was in the car and it was classical. As we walked upstairs, Deneen pointed out a wall filled with cutout fish tanks and her mother then turned on a special light to illuminate them. As if on cue, the fish seemed to come alive, their silver gills suddenly playful in the light. I thought of my walls back home, filled with art or framed museum posters and when no one was looking placed my hand over the warm glass. Suddenly the magician arrived and we were quickly ushered downstairs to the rumpus room on to beanbag chairs. I watched as Deneen’s mother ushered her to the front row and placed a party store tiara on her head. Deneen’s nails briefly meshed with her mother’s own painted ones as they laughed to secure the crown in place.
I looked down at my own stubby ones: they looked as wrong here as Deneen’s did when she wrote on the black board. Her father then appeared, holding a video camera and panned the gathered crowd. “Deneen’s friends!” he waved to get our attention. I looked at him shamefully. None of us had done anything to be Deneen’s friend and yet, here we all were. I felt a strange sensation of homesickness and elation pass through me like a current. I looked at the fish, their movements had calmed, despite the bright lights that still shone on their waters. The magician asked if there were any volunteers. Deneen leapt to her feet. Her father swerved the camera away from us and stayed on her, his only child. My brothers’ juvenile jostling of cereal boxes at the breakfast table each morning and my father’s swift exit to catch his train came to mind. How my mother would watch him leave and almost deflate at the idea of having to wrangle us all day alone at the house she grew up in, at the top of a hill with views stretching over tree tops and towards the Essex River. When Deneen had heard I lived in Essex she excitedly asked me if I had ever gone to Woodmans, the famous clam shack in town. I didn’t know how to tell her that my family would no sooner take us there than the moon. My mother called lobster “bottom feeders.”
The tank lights had now grown dark. A ceiling light suddenly shown only on Deneen. The magician stepped over to share the spotlight with her. She giggled and bowed to us. Then, even though no trick had yet been performed, we all found ourselves clapping.