One Fish Tank & Two Cups of Hot Chocolate [Part III]

By Haven Lindsey  in  blog  on  11.19.2022

One of the most extravagant things I chose to do during that phase of my life, when I had started a business and was a fledging, yet already successful entrepreneur, was to buy a fish tank. Being the pure Pisces that I am, I’ve always had a fascination and comfort with water. It was not uncommon for me to have a fish tank. But this one was different. It sat on my desk and it was a saltwater tank. Not only did I invest in this compact tank filled with exotic fish, but I also paid to have the owner of the local fish tank store service it. That way I had the peace of mind that the fish were thriving, the tank was optimized for them, and I could watch the beautifully colored fish swim as I worked my ass off at my business. I was stressed, anxious, and working long hours – the fish helped and it was a gift I gave myself.

Who knew that decision would prove to be so beneficial – not for me, but for someone else?

It was a very big deal for me to do what I was doing. I had worked for nearly 12 years as a sales rep calling on highly educated healthcare practitioners. I averaged more than 1,000 miles on my car every week for the duration of that time. Granted, I had a company car and I went through them fast because I covered expansive territories. From the moment I graduated college, I was working a minimum of 50-hour workweeks. I was well-compensated but the business was intense and competitive. I was tired and ethically I could no longer justify what I was doing. I left that job and started a business – one that was profitable within months. Then-husband and I decided to invest in the building in Justin’s burgeoning neighborhood and while we readied it for his business to move in, mine occupied the space for a couple of years.

On that cold, January morning, after Justin agreed to come in and warm up, I opened the door and walked in, letting him follow me in. I introduced him to my office manager, Keely, who looked at me as if I had three heads. She had watched me watching the kid toss the football in the air for weeks on end and openly commented that she didn’t understand why I cared about the “street kid” as she had called him. But now, this “street kid” was in our space and once again staring down, contemplating his shoes. It is incredibly challenging to introduce two people to one another when one of them doesn’t lift their head. Justin grunted something along the lines of, “Hey,” as I introduced the two.

Young Keely was a go-getter and I loved her spunk. She could roll her eyes with such acumen that it seldom failed to make me laugh. If her eye rolls were a dozen donuts, she would have 12 different flavors. As Justin grunted, Keely looked at me and rolled her eyes in one of her signature flavors. I smiled and nodded and mouthed, “It’s okay.” Keely had taken the job and with it, a chance on me, and the business I was creating. Her enthusiastic spunk and infectious laughter helped propel the business forward – I never took offense to her 12 flavors of eye rolls.

I walked the grunting “street kid” back to my office and invited him to have a seat while I walked to the other side of my desk. I was aware that I was being that person, that authority figure, deciding to be on my safe, comfort zone side of the desk while motioning him to sit in the chair designated for guests. Before my cheeks were firmly planted in the seat, I saw Justin leaning into the fish tank on my desk watching the saltwater life – completely unaware of any adulting type power of authority positioning. I relaxed.

I was happy to feel the warmth of being inside on a 19-degree day, my toes were tingling as the circulation came back to my cold feet. I was rubbing my hands to help escalate the warm-up process but I noticed Justin, despite his nose and fingers bright red from the frigid cold, was now focused on one thing: the fish tank. He was lost in the small, yet enchanting saltwater world in front of him.

Rather than be all ‘adulty’ or think ‘I’m so wonderful I’m scooping in to save you,’ I leaned over the desk and got lost with him. Keely, in her naturally protective way, popped her head in more than once to make sure things were okay and every time she did so all she saw were two people mesmerized by the fish tank.

I remained quiet because, one, I was cold and trying to thaw out and two, the kid clearly enjoyed the fish tank. It was fun to see him forget whatever the hell he was escaping from by playing a game of football toss and catch by himself. We watched in silence – the angel fish back and forth, the coral floating and moving in the current, the bright yellow fish with the big eyes that seemed to be watching Justin as much as he was watching it. There were tiny moments of breakthrough laughter and the occasional, “Wow”. I stayed silent enjoying the joy on his face.

I could see he was thin, he looked tired in the face yet he was bright-eyed. His clothes were clean and so was his hair – his fingernails weren’t dirty. He showed no signs of being an addict or alcoholic. He looked like a kid who could use some good meals but again, that word ‘potential’ kept coming up. The word was starting to scream at me.

And then at some point, he started talking. I never really looked at him and he didn’t hold eye contact with me (that would take many months to achieve) but as we peered into the tank from opposite sides, we connected. He asked about the fish. He asked about the tank. He asked specific questions about the salt content. He asked about the temperature. He asked intelligent questions. The kid was curious. I’ve always valued curiosity over ambition – even over talent. If you’re curious, you’re alive. This kid was alive.

We sat for an hour watching the fish and as I continued to answer his every question they started to broaden – far beyond the fish. The conversation evolved to a smooth back and forth, fun, light, silly, and inspiring. I chose not to pry, I let him do the talking.

I got up to make a cup of tea and asked if he wanted one. Expecting an “I don’t know” or no response at all, to my utter amazement he looked me in the eye for the first time, a smile across his face, and said, “No, but I LOVE hot chocolate. Do you have any of that?” I laughed out loud. I do not like hot chocolate but Keely was all but addicted to it and had multiple packets. It was the ideal entre.

“No, but Keely loves hot chocolate too. She has some. She might let you have some of hers but you’ll have to ask her.”

He dropped his head and retreated to that monosyllabic kid in the street once again staring down at his feet. I’ve never been gifted with patience – it’s something I’ve worked hard to attain and all these years later I’m better at being patient yet it often alludes me, much like the fish hiding in the coral. “Well, I’m gonna make myself a hot drink, if you want one you need to go talk with Keely – up to you.”

I got up and walked into our small breakroom secretly willing the kid to be brave enough to talk to Keely. I filled the glass container to boil water for my tea, and optimistically, I doubled the content just in case I would need more hot water. Within minutes I could hear the two of them laughing in the front office.

“She said yes and I can have some of her marshmallows too,” Justin exuberantly said as he bounced, almost floated, into our small breakroom, “you know, to add on top!” explaining it even more.

On the inside, I wasn’t sure what the hell was unfolding. It felt strange and awkward yet at the same time, it was the most natural thing in the world. As if this happens every day. I felt happy because whatever was happening, was good. I decided I didn’t have to know. I didn’t have to understand.

As he walked up to our small table filled with my tea and Keely’s stash of hot chocolate, marshmallows, cinnamon, and god-knows-what-else she put in it, Justin said and did something that helped me validate that “potential” word that I had been intuitively hearing.

“But I don’t want to make one for me until I make one for her first. Will you help me? I want it to be a surprise.”

“You bet, Kiddo. Grab a mug,”

For me, that was the moment when I knew. We would talk about it much later. For him, it was when I called him Kiddo the very first time.

He was smiling, he was comfortable, and he had left the football in the other room – far more focused on making hot chocolate for Keely.

“I want to cover the whole top of hers with marshmallows but I’m only going to put one on mine.”

I watched as the bubbles appeared in the water as it began to boil in the glass container. I had been so focused on my work plans and clients, my schedules, and subcontractors – an upcoming presentation to the Chamber of Commerce and the constant thoughts and perseverations of doing everything I knew to do to make my business succeed, yet at that moment, all I wanted to do was watch Justin make the hot chocolate for Keely.

And so, that’s exactly what I did.

~ ~ ~

Photograph courtesy of Elena Leya