It was the way he said it that hit me. We were watching the white and orange and red koi fish surfacing, opening their large concentric mouths. They dipped back under the brown water and bumped scales, before gliding away to suck algae on concrete walls. They were 20-year-old fish, longer and wider than my forearm.
We had stepped away from the extended family, the flourishes of waitstaff and our dinners. My son laid his head on the pillow of his arm, which rested on the wood railing of the bridge where we stood. Neither of us felt communicative. We watched fish as if we were watching a baseball game on TV. The movement lulled us into a stillness that hasn't been possible in the urgent commotion of our home where the boy's newborn sister has wailed.
He said it while watching the colors of the fish mingle in the brown pond water. He said it at first without lifting his head from the railing on the bridge.
"I really need a fish in my life."
White and orange and red surfaced and disappeared.
"Daddy," he said, turning toward me, the palms of his not-yet 3-year-old hands up, arms spread. "I really need a fish in my life." He squinted his eyes, the wrinkles in his sun-kissed face pressed for an appeal.
I didn't think about how we were standing on a little wooden bridge at the time, but I was thinking about his season of transition -- the move from crib to full bed, the combined baby/toddler class at the Little Gym he was too big for and the piss-warm, over-chlorinated pool water he choked on while trying to keep up at the Y during swim lessons.
His mother and I have talked to him about using the potty, but haven't followed through. We've all been tired, and I knew that he wasn't really asking me for a fish. So I complied and punctuated my "OK, buddy" with a few pats on the head. The way my father might have done. The way fathers and sons can speak to each other when they're too tired to talk.
This essay first appeared in Weston Magazine.