what i learned

An Emissary From the Land of the Capable

Blackout series. Illustration: Jules Julien

My boyfriend’s handy. Aaron comes from a handy family — if they see something’s broken, they go ahead and fix it. Or build a new one. In bygone days, they would have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into a distant neighbor’s barn-raising. My own people would have smiled benignly on their unpleasant-seeming labors. Then wandered off into a nearby field, dreamily playing a pan flute or gazing at sheep.

In the pandemic, his handiness is even more of a boon than normally — he worked construction in Manhattan apartments for two decades, so he knows his way around a germ. He’s 16 kinds of outsourcing rolled into one: He’ll tackle plumbing and wiring, cabinets, furniture, the pump for our pond, coolers, clothes dryers, dishwashers. Of course, he plays down his abilities — “I’m not really a carpenter,” he’ll say apologetically, after working wood with three kinds of saws in a single day — but to me, a person who doesn’t even change her own tires, he’s an emissary from the land of the capable.

He’s also a perfectionist. Which can be frustrating in these times. While I feel like I’m treading water just to keep the bases covered — food procured, children sane — he’ll insist on fashioning a wooden stand to elevate my son’s iPad at exactly the right height and angle for his virtual Tae Kwon Do classes. Or neatly labeling each vegetable container with a strip of tape bearing its name and acquisition date. Or sucking barely visible dust from windowsills with a powerful, loud compressor.

In lockdown, his thoroughness has focused itself with laser-sharp intensity. On, it turns out, a small fish.

For a long time before he lived with us, the children and I had a freshwater aquarium. Eventually, we’d decided — admittedly not based on direct feedback from the fish — that they were leading lives of quiet desperation. We decided not to replace them as they gradually expired. The aquarium was slated for retirement, and we had little interest in its upkeep. Now only one fish remains. It’s about an inch long and seven years old, with a life expectancy of five.

But while we were housebound, Aaron decided this lone survivor was his mission. He replaced the filthy gravel with a clean substrate. Painstakingly changed out the water, installed new filters and aerators, and set up a remote-control system that lets him adjust the lighting through an app. (Note that we don’t have such a fancy system for our actual house.) Bought a complex kit to measure the water parameters using test tubes. Got better fish food. Threw out the plastic plants and put in real ones.

Then he acquired nerite snails. (They’re also hardy survivors: They withstood several hours in our metal mailbox at temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.) Devised an elaborate bucket system that bubbles constantly, with hoses weaving in and out, in which he’s “quarantined” the tiny mollusks. Before transferring them to the fish tank, where they will slowly consume the unsightly patches of bright-green algae that have blossomed on its glass due to the new plants and lighting. Their presence will generate additional organic material, so the water, he says, will have to be further adjusted. After the snails, he plans to introduce red-cherry shrimp.

The end result will be a better quality of life for the solitary, aged fish. A miniature fish utopia.

I watch him toiling over his buckets, attentive to the snails’ digestive processes and how they cloud the water, closely observing their behavior and condition. In a neat binder, he keeps instructions and makes careful notations.

A vague annoyance tugs at me as I recall our list of uncompleted tasks that don’t involve the welfare of snails. He glances up at me and sees my impatient expression — for, like the fish, Aaron’s acutely sensitive to changes in his environment.

He looks crestfallen. Sad.

So, instantly guilty, I adjust my face. And feel a wave of fondness.

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