An Obsessive Unpacks a Bewildering Insult

"Fish (in 13 sections)" by Eric Ozawa, recommended by Kristopher Jansma

Introduction by Kristopher Jansma

We often say that a story has “changed” our lives, but in this case, Eric Ozawa’s “Fish (in 13 sections)” actually changed mine. A writer-baby, only 20, rosy-cheeked and terrified, I came to New York City to attend a meeting for students accepted to the MFA at Columbia. I was so nervous about it that I arrived at Dodge Hall more than an hour early. As I paced around, I came down with an epic case of the yips. I convinced myself that I absolutely did not belong there. That I would never be serious enough about writing to compete at this level, and that I ought to cut my losses and flee while the fleeing was good. But then I picked up a stray copy of the Columbia Journal of Literature and Art (Issue 35) and flipped it open to Ozawa’s story. By the end of the first line, I was utterly charmed. By the end of the first page, I was laughing my head off. It reminds me always of the poignancy of heartbreak, the strangeness of the human mind, and the many kinds of outlandish fun that are always possible on the page. 

Ozawa’s “Fish” is one of the strangest and most memorable stories about a break-up that I have ever come across. It begins, “1. Introduction: A fish. She called me a fish. I have no idea what she meant.” And it only gets better from there.

The story traces the speaker’s oddly methodical (and methodically odd) attempt to then determine what his lover meant when she called him a “fish” by playing out various potential meanings. Was it a metaphor? Did she mean to call him a fish, or was it a verb form, demanding that he “go fish”? Perhaps it was an acronym for something. Perhaps a reference to Gertrude Stein’s axiom, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”? Perhaps he actually misunderstood what she said entirely. 

For each of these possibilities, the narrator concocts highly-specific alternate remedies. He writes her poetry. Researches fish. Sings a country song. Has a dream involving yakuza. Fantasizes about dictionary sex. I promise it is stranger even than I make it seem. 

Ozawa’s story is experimental in the truest sense of that word. It hypothesizes and then tests out its own ideas. Its innovations in form and structure can feel both radical and also deeply familiar to anyone who has ever spent an entire weekend trying to decipher what exactly their ex meant when they said—whatever it was they said.

– Kristopher Jansma
Author of Why We Came to the City

An Obsessive Unpacks a Bewildering Insult

“Fish (in 13 sections)” by Eric Ozawa

1. Introduction:
A fish. She called me a fish. I have no idea what she meant.

2. Description:
I should say first that we had been fighting: indeed, there had been a dispute; let us leave it at that. She was hot-tempered, and so when she approached me, her face enlarged and enflamed with tears, I was not overwhelmingly surprised, since, as I said, we had done this sort of thing before. I tried to comfort her and put my hands on her bare shoulders as she beat me. Her hands were open and thumped heavily on my chest. I must admit that I experienced desire as she hit me—not so much from the violence itself as from its consequence: the thin strap of her dress had fallen from her shoulder, leaving her right breast—my favorite—exposed and sweat­ing. I stared. I may have licked my lips. She did not notice; her eyes were shut like clams, and she was clutching at my hair. I tried to comfort her: “Come,” I said, stroking her hair which, to be honest, looked angry and, worse, smelled strangely—not clean or feminine, but like Chinese food. Her hair was like very thin lo mein noodles. In the still air, the smell wavered and clung. I felt hungry for the wrong foods.

And it was at that point that what happened happened. She pulled herself away from me, throwing off my arms and my gaze from her breast and headed full-steam for the door. She turned, her face flushed and drained, her lips clamped so tight that when she opened them to speak her mouth tore a gash; she turned to me, her sweaty hand fumbling with the door knob and said, “You—” she looked up and to her left without focusing; her face was sour—” You…fish.”

A fish. She called me a fish. I have no idea what she meant.

3. Detail:
Her pronunciation of the word fish. There was a great deal of stress on the f. As if out of fear or embarrassment she needed to pause before saying the word. A windup. Perhaps she was fumbling. In her memory the words, farmer, fathead, fungus, fanny, fool, were all highlighted but not chosen. For some reason the word fish was. But these are all speculations, what is more certain is the windup. Like a child saying fuck.

4. Correction(s):
In fact, I have many theories about what she meant.

5. Theories:
i) the metaphorical: That I am in some way like a fish, that is, that I possess the properties of a fish. Properties (fish): scaly, slimy, coldblooded, smelly, edible, with a ridiculous appearance, and final­ly, perhaps most importantly, aquatic. Aquatic—we have gone swimming together once or twice, bur I do not recall ever spending too much time in the water. Alternative (a.): that I am as dependent on water as a fish. A sweeping indictment of society at large and its dependence on the toilet, the faucet, the bath, the outdoor shower, the hose, etc. Alternative (b.): minor properties of fish, i.e., that I am slimy and coldblooded, perhaps a liar; or scaly—I have had dry skin recently. Resolution: All possible, but I don’t see why she wouldn’t have chosen to call me a snake or a reptile instead.

ii) the reference: Gertrude Stein: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” A reversal of roles. Perhaps she holds the masculine role in our relationship, i.e., wears the pants, and that l am, as is often said in schoolyards and in prisons, her bitch. An aggression—not weak at all as I had first imagined, but, in that way is it not the more weak for it, for, considering her condition, was not her attempt at domination merely a pathetic gesture, and in being so, a cry for help? Very clever.

iii) the absurd: My search for meaning in fish may be in vain; she could have meant nothing at all, or more precisely, an absolute lack of meaning. If so, fish was chosen not for the properties associ­ated with the word or for any connotation or reference, but for its inappropriateness, its very inapplicableness to the situation. A ges­ture aimed at the absurdity of our condition, and in a more gener­al way, of the human condition.

iv) the acronym: Consider the letters themselves. Suppose that their sum, fish, was incidental. E.g.: Fucking Insane Selfish Human, Fibbing Incompetent Showoff Hedonist, Faintly Intelligible Stupid Head, Fabricated Incorrigible Sex Half, Filial Implied Supportive Help, Fecund Insufficient Sweat Harness, Fun Is Still Hunger. A great many possibilities.

v) the Mafiosi: A threat in Mafia code. “You fish,” she says, meaning, “You’ll be sleeping with the fishes.” We once watched The Godfather together.

vi) the misunderstanding: That I misheard what she said.

vii) the verb: “You fish,” she says, as in: “You go fishing.” Problem: I don’t fish. At least not as a habit. I think I went once as a child. I caught an oyster cracker. Resolution: She knows that I don’t fish. Thus she means, “That’s the problem with our relation­ship: we assume intimacy, yet don’t know each other.”

viii) the ce n’est pas le mot juste: (Slightly different from Theory iii) That she meant nothing by the word fish itself, that is, she could not find the right word for what I was, the right diagnosis for the failure our relationship. Metaphor: She searched for it in a barrel of words, paused throwing out the curses lying loosely on top, rifled through the easy ones like man or boy, dumped out the nonsensical ones like Ferrari and major motion picture, she thought she had it when she began with f but then realized she’d lost it; she searched again and gave up, settling for the only word that came to mind, the word stewing at the bottom of the barrel: fish.

6. Complaint:
I have heard people say “Theories, theories, theories, but what of action?” I find that to be a very odd sentence construction. Still, the complaint may be valid.

7. Theoretical Responses To Theories:
i) the metaphorical: Alternative (a): Stop bathing. Alternative (b): Bathe often, apply lotion as needed.

ii) the reference: The Offensive: Ride to her on a bicycle. Take her pants off. Comfort her. The Appeasement: Ask her to take you swimming on her bicycle. Purchase a book of quotes.

iii) the absurd: Send her a note:

Dear Prod,

The duck in the mangrove—Who; tung?—wore red geets can the right/bite? In the mid nacht between you I provence. Oysters.

—Teston

If she does nor respond, appear to her in a cape with the numbers 4, 5, and 7 arranged in numerical order around your genitals. Holding rightly to the nape of her neck, coax her in Spanish to feed the dog bananas.

iv) the acronym: Send her a regressive acronymic note:

FISH.
FOOL IS STILL HUMAN.
FEELINGS ON OUR LOVE: IF SOMEHOW SHE TRIES INSTEAD LEAVING LOVE, HIS UNDERSTANDING MUST APPROACH NIL.

etc.

v) the Mafiosi: Take her out to a nice restaurant. Make sure she wears a long red dress and a wide-brimmed hat. Speak coarsely to the waiters, but tip heavily. On the way our of the restaurant, kiss her passionately, leaning her onto a nearby table. Pull up her legs roughly and sit her on the table. Avoid forks. Pull up her dress and make love to her then and there on the table. Leave money for the inconvenience, also her hat. On the way home shoot her three times in the back of the head. Dump her in the river. Wear a nice suit.

vi) the misunderstanding: Ask her what she said.

vii) the verb: Begin by saying, “I don’t fish.” Then if she looks surprised, say, “But I’m perfectly willing to if it’s important to you.” If she does not look surprised, say, “But that’s what you meant, isn’t it?” If she concedes, pursue the point, e.g., via the gentle reversal: “‘Why do you think we don’t know each ocher well?” or request assistance: “How can we better get to know each ocher?”

viii) the ce n’est pas le mot juste: Give her a dictionary. Read to her from it until she is tired. Then kiss her neck slowly. Make love to her sweetly, on top of the dictionary. Make it a red one and surround it with white satin pillows for comfort. Preferably a very large dictionary. Better to leave the dust jacket on.

8. Closing:
Leaving, she had some difficulty with the door, which is to say, she couldn’t open it. When she did, it came abruptly, swung too fast—so fast it might have hit her face had she not jerked back. She paused in the doorway as her hand slipped off the knob—she paused only for a moment, a film still: her head was turned towards me, though not enough for her to see over her shoulder. I could see her face silhouetted by the light coming in through the open door and the air of the small, closed room leaving with her. Then she turned her back and walked away. The heavy door swung behind her, blowing hot air back into the room.

Theories, theories, theories, but what of action?

9. Addenda to Theoretical Responses (a back-up, for it may be best not to readdress the issue, but to surprise her; i.e., to take her from above, to overcome):

ix) the country song: Become a small-time country singer. Sing songs about her on the sidewalks of famous bars, empty cafes, in stadium parking lots,

e.g:

Verse I
Sitting by the river
Drinking my cod liver
I’m still fishing for my missing family
I got a Smith and Wesson
A Chrysler and a Stetson
But none of them can bring her back to me

Chorus
She left me in the shallows
Lonely at the gallows
Thinking about the one that got away
I dream of sleeping fishes
Full of silent wishes,
Still hungry for the one that got away

Verse 2
Now there’s many types of fish
Might end up on your dish
Anything that’s caught upon your hook
Don’t need no fancy spices
Don’t matter what the price is
Hunger is the heart’s greatest cook

(Repeat Chorus)

Bridge

The one that got away,
the one that got away,
Can’t bear the taste of the one that got away.

(Chorus Out)

x) the postcard: Send her a postcard:
”Wish you were here.”

l0. Finale:
After the door closed, when I imagine she was taking wobbly steps down the stairs outside, there was the sound of the door closing officially, the lock filling the slot in the frame.

11. Citations:
From 25 lessons far the Novice Fisherman: drawing of a man fly­ fishing on the cover, pages for notes in back. Since master fisherman, Frank Hillman, believes no one can learn the rod sitting in his smoking jacket, he attempted to publish the book with water­proof pages. He offers these simple lessons to read the night before:

Lesson I: You need the right bait…
Lesson 15: Beware of too much slack in the line.

From Animals in Captivity, Vol. II, by Col. F.S. Lloyd. The most important text by the professional big game hunter and the father of modern animal husbandry. A quotation from the author’s gun holder serves as an example of native superstition (p.1147):

A bird will die if she does not realize the glass is solid. A fish will die if she does not pretend that it isn’t.

From The Proper Care for Gold Fish: A pet store manual:
Caution: Don’t feed them too often

12. Fish In Digest

i.
Thrown off of soft breast,
a fish is used to confuse.
The search is humid.

ii.
Shaking in the still’d
air, she walls herself in white­
the mystery of red.

iii.
Perhaps in vain, I
strive to understand a girl
with hair of lo mein

iv.
I have heard people
say, “Theories, theories, theories,
but what of action?”

v.
Above all action
I hover like a mallard
before wet-landing.

vi.
Words fall like Autumn
from a hot-temper’d woman;
Hand struggles with knob.

vii.
A white ocean swarms
with red fish, I dip my toes
and sing country songs.

viii.
Between her and me
the key moment is the shut­—
perhaps the locking.

ix.
The oceans dry up,
leaving the sleeping fishes
to wake up gasping.

x.
Meditating after,
I’m hungry like a loose strap­—
Fish Inedible.

13. Conclusion:
After she left, I dreamt that I had followed her to the grounds of a Japanese castle. The castle had been rebuilt and renovated, a museum reproduction recently occupied by yakuza. Despite their absence, I felt like an intruder. A museum-goer handling the statues. The halls of the castle held an impossible, inert atmosphere; dust hung perfectly motionless in the air, reflecting the light corning through the arrow slits in the walls. I went into a white room looking for her. I felt as if I were underwater. The room was refrigerated; against the far wall an aquarium sat on a cable beside two food canisters. The fish had been left for dead, and I knew they must be starving. I rapped out the flakes and bits of mulch from the two containers, but none of the food broke the surface tension of the water, and none of the fish noticed. They swam along the blue rocks at the bottom of the tank, darting back and forth through the plastic castle. “Come,” I said, but the fish were unreachable. They swam below the surface, stopping occasionally to open their mouths without significance.

I left the room and continued to search the hallway. At the entrance to a room around the corner was the body of a man in a black suit, his leather shoes pointing towards the ceiling accusingly. Behind him were racks of swords. A museum collection of valuable and historically important weapons. I had always wanted to hold one of the swords and did not hesitate. Reaching over the body, my foot stepped on a stiff hand. I picked what I thought was a covered sword, but the sword was not inside; I was holding only the leather sheath.

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