A Neon Amongst Cardinals: Notes on Alienation

(note: I am seriously wondering if an academic article with this preposterous title could pass peer review and be published in a social sciences journal somewhere.  I honestly think it may be possible.)

          In my aquarium, I have a number of cardinal tetras (Paracheirodon axelrodi).  You have probably seen them before, even if you don’t keep fish yourself. These small fish originate in the blackwater rivers of the Amazon basin, and they have an iridescent blue and red stripe on each side of their bodies.  They look like this:  

            When the cardinals are relaxed—or when they are not particularly stimulated, if “relaxed” is too anthropomorphic—they spread out a little, venturing away from each other.  They nibble at rocks or pick at the gravel or maybe take a nap in the foliage, whatever.  If anything alerts them, though, they immediately tighten up into a school, or shoal.  The more agitated they are, the denser the shoal. 
           
           If you looked at the shoal carefully—perhaps at 1 AM while sitting on the sofa with The Goebbels Experiment on the DVD player, an unexamined periodical in your lap, sucking down uncaffinated  Diet Coke like a severely dehydrated Mormon and waiting for your brain to turn off without benefit of tranquilizers—you would notice that one of the fish in that group was different from the others.  He was almost like all the other cardinals, but not quite.  It’s not your imagination—something is definitely off about him, but you can’t put your finger on what it is right away.  Like when someone at work shows up with a new hairdo.  If this fish was a person lined up to get on an airplane, he would definitely get profiled and yanked for additional security inspection for some reason.  Every fucking time. 
             
           The fish in question is, in fact, a neontetra, Paracheirodon innesi. He is closely related to the cardinals.  His red stripe extends only halfway down his body, however, and he’s shaped a bit differently.  He looks like this: 
            
          The neon shoals with the cardinals and they allow him.  But I gotta tell you, he never looks really comfortable.  He’s always drag-assing at the end of the shoal or lifting slightly off of its side, breaking its symmetry.  He’s not entirely tuned in to the effortless hive-like communal mentality the cardinals share (watch video of flocks of starlings on YouTube if you want a better understanding of my point). When they just hang out, he conceals himself in the plants.  If you were eyeballing him from my couch at one in the morning, your coffee table strewn with uncaffinated Diet Coke bottles and interchangeable weight plates, you might think: That fish looks self-conscious.  He’s totally fucked and he knows it.  However shrewd, however accurate, this would not be a very consoling thought to have at this time of night, hearing Kenneth Branagh’s voice reciting from Goebbels’ diaries (some of the footage in the movie is awesome, though).  
He was sold to me by mistake at the fish store; somehow he got put into the cardinal tetra tank.  He was rounded up with some others and I took him home.  It took a little while before I recognized him for what he was. 
 It’s a bit of a dilemma.  I realize that it is not going to be taken up at the United Nations anytime soon, but it bothers me nonetheless.  I could return him to the store, and then he would go to God knows where—neon tetra Shangri-la or someone who kills him immediately because they forget to de-clorinate the tapwater.  At least I know that my tank is a healthful habitat; I monitor the chemical parameters of the water, I watch the denizens like Big Brother.  I have introduced a few other neon tetras in the past, but because they were tiny juveniles (I cannot find mature specimens), the big angelfish gradually picked them off.  The original neon tetra is too big for them to eat, so they leave him alone.  The last of his kind.  A practical Ishi of the aquarium, he is. 
 You can see where this is going.
 Will post the rest tomorrow. 

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